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Researchers exploring federal land transfer's impact on Utah

Published August 14, 2013 9:24 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Economists from Utah's public universities are gathering data to help determine the economic impact of the state's proposed takeover of 30 million acres of federal land.

Four academics on Wednesday met with an auditorium full of citizens, most of them partisans in the contentious public-lands debate, explaining how they will quantify costs and benefits and fielding suggestions.

The study will examine economic contributions of timber, grazing, mining, energy development and other activities taking place on Utah's public land, both federal and state, University of Utah's Jan Stambro told the testy crowd at the Capitol office building.

"We are making an inventory of what's going on and what's available. Then we model changes in operations of what is currently happening," said Stambro, an economist with the U.'s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The studies are being conducted under a legislative mandate seeking to advance the goals of the 2012 Public Lands Transfer Act. The purpose is to test the hypothesis that state management will lead to greater economic development than federal management, according to Utah State University professor Paul Jakus. This was a core justification for the state demanding title to almost all the lands the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management administer in Utah.

The answer to that basic question was a no-brainer for many in the room. Conservationists said the land transfer is a fiscal disaster that would undermine Utah's robust tourism economy and quality of life.

Political conservatives see it as a sure way to boost rural economies by re-opening lands to livestock, extractive industries and other uses they say have been shut out by out-of-touch bureaucrats and federal regulations.

But Jakus and his colleague, Weber State University economist Therese Grijalva, intend to delve more deeply and determine the economic benefits of things that don't show up in spread sheets, such as access to lands to hike and fish.

The economists also plan to calculate what the land transfer could cost Utah taxpayers. The Forest Service and BLM spend tens of millions fighting fires, managing grazing, studying imperiled species, safeguarding cultural resources and myriad other obligations that would presumably fall to the state.

Stambro has asked the land management agencies for 10 years worth of expenditure data and the value of the equipment, buildings and other infrastructure they maintain in Utah.

But Pat Shea, a conservationist and former BLM director, questioned whether the federal agencies could assemble such data. It would be like asking Utah Highway Patrol what it spends patrolling Daggett County highways, he said.

"This pipe dream may satisfy the political appetites of some in Utah, but it's outside reality as it relates to the budget," Shea said. "The people of New Jersey and California have been paying part of the money for maintaining these public lands."

Environmentalists insisted human-health impacts and road hazards arising from increased energy development be factored, but these concerns are beyond the scope of the analyses, according to John Harja of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office. —

Public lands transfer

The Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office wants to hear from you regarding its economic analysis of the proposed transfer of pubic lands. Email your comments or suggestions to economicstudy@utah.gov. The report is to be released by November 2014.