The Legislature two years ago passed a law demanding that the federal government transfer most of its public lands within Utah to the state. Now lawmakers are writing a package of bills to show how they would actually manage the land if the shift occurred.
"The message we need to give our constituents is we are not going to rape and pillage the land. ... We’re going to be wise stewards," Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, told the House Republican Caucus on Tuesday in discussing the project.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said lawmakers have done a good job in the past showing that the transfer could bring billions of dollars to Utah schools through improved mineral and oil royalties or even better management for tourism, but it hasn’t built support necessary to convince people that Utah would take care of the land.
"Everybody could get a level of comfort and relax" if Utah outlines such things as "where will we drill," he said. Also, "There’s certain places where we are going to stand up and say we are going to protect these aggressively."
Stratton said the House GOP is working on bills, for example, that will outline how Utah would define and set aside wilderness areas on public lands it obtained. Lawmakers are drafting another bill that would outline the use of revenues coming from the lands. Yet another piece of legislation would set up a sort of task force, with legislators as members, to work with other states and the federal government to figure out next steps toward bringing about the transfer .
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who wrote 2012’s HB148 to demand the title transfer, said that law already mandates that what is now federal public land would become state public land "for multiple use, sustained yield with local planning." Existing grazing and mineral rights would continue.
"Now we just have to logistically work it out" with bills to show how the state would manage lands, including protecting appropriate areas, he said.
He said Utah also needs to show how revenues would be spent and calm counties worried about losing federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes — which he said should stand for "Pennies In Lieu of Trillions" because Utah could get so much more if it owned the lands.
HB148 demands title to most federal land within Utah’s borders be transferred to the state. That covers about 60 percent of Utah and does not include the five national parks and the national monuments — except for Grand Staircase-Escalante — nor areas designated under the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The House GOP caucus voted unanimously to continue work on the bills under discussion.
Environmentalists have been more than skeptical about the proposal of a massive public lands transfer to the state.
Southern Utah Wilderness Association attorney Steve Boch has called it a "terrible public policy" and said Utah’s track record does not bode well for balanced stewardship of the land.
Lawmakers consider the public-lands debate central to the issue of state sovereignty.
"Our ancestors came here. We turned this into a beautiful place," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. "We want people to come here and see it. We can do it 10 times better than a bunch of federal bureaucrats back in Washington, D.C., that are doing a lousy job with the money we send back there."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Utah, said while Utah has high hopes for the land transfer eventually, she knows it will likely be a long and expensive process.
But, she said, "The return on that investment in a win scenario is almost unbelievable in terms of the trillions of dollars over the next few decades that would be available to the people of Utah for our school system, for our infrastructure development, for everything. It’s almost mind-boggling."
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