If Utah were to succeed in its long-shot bid to seize federal lands via eminent domain, a GOP lawmaker wants to ensure that at least five scenic treasures remain protected: the state's national parks.
"Bryce Canyon or Zion could end up getting trashed," Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, warned, "so we want to create rules to make [the state] good stewards of the land."
Cox, an avowed fan of Utah's national parks, is drafting a bill that would do just that.
Cox believes that the federal government has no constitutional right to its vast holdings in the Beehive State, including national parks and monuments. If Utah were to gain control of the parks, he said the state could manage them or contract with the National Park Service to do so.
"We want to protect Utah," Cox said, "and can do that as good as the federal government, if not better."
Even with Utah talking about closing down or limiting hours at some state parks due to money woes, Cox believes development of energy and industries on public lands could raise enough revenue to operate the parks and even contribute to the state's school trust account.
Ted Wilson, Gov. Gary Herbert's senior environmental adviser, said he has spoken briefly with Cox about his "improbable" bill and noted that the governor hasn't taken a position on it.
"Taking over [national parks]," Wilson said, "you need money for salaries of rangers and other employees, plus maintenance cost and roads."
James Doyle, a spokesman with the National Park Service in Denver, said it is hard to comment on legislation that has yet to be drafted, but he added it is "not cheap" to maintain national parks. If Utah took over operations, it could require subsidies from the Legislature.
David Nimkin, a regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, doubts it would ever be legal for Utah to take over the national parks, although he did point to examples in which American Indian tribes help run them.
He also noted that the Organic Act of 1916 set strict standards for national parks to keep them as pristine as possible.
"When you have 2.5 million visitors a year traipsing through Zion National Park, it's not easy to protect everything," he said. "The park service does a good job, and it would be hard to find anyone else to do the part."