It is fun, and politically profitable, for Utah politicians to curse the federal government. It interferes. It lays down unfunded mandates. It jealously holds on, goes the lore, to millions of acres of land that should long since have been turned over to state control.
The whining goes on long and loud. At least until a few thousand of those federally hoarded acres catch fire, and federal resources are brought in to put those fires out.
The hypocrisy is in particularly high relief this year. A winter in which Utah's governor and Legislature staked a frivolous claim to some 30 million acres of federal land has been followed by a summer in which the rate, and the cost, of wildfires around the state are sparking up at a rate comparable to the record number of acres burned in 2007.
As of last week, the total cost of extinguishing wildfires in Utah had been calculated at $47.1 million. And, officially, fire season has more than another month to go.
These fires are a burden to all levels of government not to mention property owners as they require immediate, and round-the-clock, responses from local, state and federal agencies. Firefighters, law enforcement officers and other support crews can't fight fires on a 9-to-5 shift. They have to be out there all hours, often in dangerous conditions that merit hazardous duty pay, dependent on other workers to bring them water, food and equipment.
Because the labors are so intense, and because much of the land susceptible to wildfires is federal land, the federal government helps a lot, with coordination, organization and, significantly, money. The Federal Emergency Management Agency covers some 75 percent of eligible costs.
The land grab bill adopted in the last legislative session is, of course, based on the idea that if the state owned all that land or if the feds sold it into private hands and gave Utah a cut of the proceeds the state would be in a better position to pay for its own needs. And it probably would, at least in terms of short-term cash flow and an increase in the amount of property placed on the tax roles.
But such a change would also increase the amount of land that was developed, increasing the number of homes and businesses that would be in the fire-vulnerable borders of wild lands. It would also mean more industrial activity mostly oil and gas drilling in currently wild areas, which would add to the possible sources of combustive materials.
If Utah were expected to handle all firefighting efforts on its own, rather than share federal resources that can be moved around from state to state as needs arise, the cost to our state's taxpayers would be large indeed.