Gary Herbert finally met an oil well he doesn't like.
Utah's fossil fuel-driven governor surprised some, and pleased a few others, when he called upon the state agency that is supposed to manage state-owned land for the financial benefit of public education to back off its plans to lease some 98,000 acres in the Book Cliffs region of eastern Utah for oil exploration.
The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration had invited drillers into an area that is now mostly devoid of roads or other human markings, but home to the kind of big game that hunters come looking for. But Herbert suggested the other day that SITLA offer to transfer at least some of that land into the protective care of the federal government, in exchange for some other lands that would be more suitable for, and less damaged by, oil exploration.
The governor's suggestion came after groups representing hunters protested the proposed leases. And it has the backing of U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, another Utah Republican who, like Herbert, is often heard to oppose protection of land and prefer the exploitation of public property for private benefit.
To a degree, Herbert and Bishop still want the land turned to the benefit of a few, in this case, hunters. And not just any hunters, but those flush enough to wander deep into roadless areas in search of trophy elk.
Still, the two are right to notice that some things, in some places, are of greater benefit than another rig or well. Not everyone would look at the same piece of land and come to the same conclusions, but it is encouraging that two of the state's top leaders see that debate is not always to be resolved in favor of the boom-and-bust extractive economy.
There are other lands around the state that deserve to be protected rather than denuded and left for dead. Not all of them are home to trophy animals or striking vistas. Some of them have a key place in complicated ecosystems, or make it possible for harried human beings to go someplace completely quiet.
And such lands, so preserved, will attract the most important species of all, the money-spending tourist, in ever-greater numbers, from now through the end of time, while drilling and mining will, by definition, eventually peter out.
It is ironic that the way of public education is to spend money now for public benefit later, while SITLA, which is supposed to raise money for education, favors making money now and leaving the future to fend for itself. If SITLA managers need the governor to step in occasionally to remind them of this contradiction, then maybe the laws that create and empower that independent agency need to be changed.
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