Recently, Utah's Legislature passed and Gov. Gary Herbert enthusiastically signed four bills that essentially call for the "return" of federal lands to the state. Totaling some 30 million acres, the bills propose to transfer nearly all lands from the U.S. to Utah.
The bill's proponents championed this as "wresting control from federal bureaucrats," but what they really would do is take these lands away from their rightful owners, the American people. "Return" of these lands is such an inaccurate term anyway.
These lands never belonged to Utah to begin with but were part of the territories of the United States that then evolved into states. If any return is to happen, it ought to be to the lands' original inhabitants, the Native Americans. They controlled these lands first. Maybe the Legislature should take up that cause: repatriation of Indian lands.
Instead, Herbert invited 10 governors to a "Western Roundtable" and to join him in a "land transfer crusade." Only two showed up and neither supported Herbert's agenda. Later, knowing it to be unconstitutional, Arizona's Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill similar to Utah's land-grab statute.
But these setbacks haven't discouraged Utah's land grabbers.
It is abundantly clear that the state of Utah has neither the personnel nor the expertise to manage these millions of acres of public lands. Instead, our governor and Legislature would lease, sell, loan and auction off our lands to the highest bidders.
The bidders are the usual deep-pocketed campaign contributors: gas, oil, coal and uranium companies, hard-rock mining firms, big logging and ranching corporations, and developers. You can be sure that wildlife habitat, clean water, air quality, resource protection and non-mechanized recreation would be low priorities for the state.
But don't take my word for it; have a look yourself at what state-styled land management looks like. In the Uinta Basin, state and industry-friendly land managers have allowed 16,000 oil and gas wells to be drilled in what is becoming one of the country's largest pincushions.
In southern Utah, energy companies plan to dig up millions of tons of dirty coal and truck it west to the Great Basin to be burned in a new huge, air-polluting power plant to sell electricity to California. In eastern Utah, state officials want to build a nuclear power plant to turn the nearby uranium reserves into electricity.
You'd think the $1 billion Superfund uranium tailings disaster near Moab, the millions of gallons of water the nuclear plant would suck from the already declining Green River and downstream Lake Powell, and the threat of nuclear contamination and waste would cause them pause. You'd be wrong.
Elsewhere, the state of Utah is suing the various federal agencies in order to gain access to 12,000 miles of closed and abandoned "roads." The "roads" claimed by the state, include stream beds, cow paths, wagon trails and footpaths. By elevating these to roads, Utah would be able to block all new wilderness designation, gain vehicle access to fragile and sensitive lands for development and turn large parts of rural Utah into giant off-road vehicle playgrounds.
How have Utah legislators and the governor sold this misguided land grab to everyday Utahns? Easy, they wrapped it up in the rhetoric of our kids and funding their schools.
Perennially, Utah shortchanges our students more than any other state in the country. The bills' proponents say they plan to plow the revenues, short-term as they'll be, into public education. And who could be opposed to giving more money to our schools, teachers and kids, right?
It's brilliant, really, but there are many flaws in the plan. First, the land grab is blatantly unconstitutional; it'll never survive a court battle, but we've already earmarked $3 million for trying.
Second, it's unsustainable. Once the coal is dug up, the oil and gas pumped, all the trees cut down and the land overgrazed, then what?
Third, it'll derail the largest single part of Utah's economy: tourism (annually a $6 billion industry). And fourth, it will discourage the single greatest reason people and businesses choose to move to Utah: a healthy environment.
In survey after survey, folks say they chose to live here because of the clean air and water, the unparalleled scenery and the abundant outdoor recreation.
In an op-ed earlier this year, a state legislator from Layton who defended the land grab, speculated on what his grandkids might ask: "Grandpa ... why didn't you do something to help us get a better education?"
It's more likely that she'd ask, "Grandpa, why did you destroy Utah's natural landscapes in search of quick profit?" I sure hope we don't have to answer that question.
Eric C. Ewert is an associate professor of geography at Weber State University.