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Led by Mitt Romney, lawmakers complain Utah’s share of money to improve public lands is ‘shockingly low’

Feds handed out more than $1.6 billion under new fund meant to reduce backlog of maintenance programs nationwide.

(Nikki Boliaux | The New York Times) Hikers take in the view from the summit of the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park, where the number of visitors has surged, Nov. 23, 2020. Utah received $7.3 million from the federal government to improve public lands, far below what Utah lawmakers say is needed.

A new fund takes cash the federal government gets from companies drilling for oil and gas and uses it to improve national parks and other public lands.

Think new trails, remodeled restrooms, repaved roads.

Utah has a lot of public lands. It also is a big driver of the fees oil and gas companies pay for using public lands. But the state did not get a big chunk of this new fund.

That has Utah’s federal lawmakers steaming. On Thursday, they sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland demanding an explanation.

“We write to express our frustration with the recent announcement of funding for public lands and national parks in Utah,” the letter begins. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, put it together, and it is signed by the five other members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Of the $1.6 billion spent on maintenance projects nationwide, Utah received $7.3 million. None of that is headed to the state’s “Mighty 5” national parks or its eight national monuments, though they have $225 million in identified needs.

Utah’s portion instead is going to 11 projects involving Bureau of Land Management properties. The biggest chunk — more than $4 million — will be spent to repave and improve the Canyon Rim roads and the Needles Overlook roads, outside of Canyonlands National Park.

The amount Romney’s letter identifies doesn’t count some portion of $8.5 million that will be spent on a demolition project on the Navajo Nation land that includes portions of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Utah’s senators and representatives say the state’s share is “shockingly low” since it provides $81.5 million in the federal royalty monies from oil and gas development that go into the fund and that two-thirds of the state is public lands. They complained about the $247.5 million that went to Virginia, largely to repair the George Washington Memorial Parkway. They noted that state’s allotment alone is “more than enough to cover our entire state’s backlog.”

Zion National Park, one of the most highly visited in the nation, identified $48 million in necessary road, parking, bridge and tunnel improvements, and $11 million that could upgrade trails, $6 million to spruce up campgrounds and $17 million to revamp dilapidated buildings. The Interior Department funded none of those needs.

Utah’s lawmakers want to know how the Interior Department picked projects and if it used a formula to determine how much went to each state.

The Interior Department declined to comment Thursday on the letter.

This fund, created by the Great American Outdoors Act, will be around for four more years and will spend up to $1.6 billion each of those years on similar maintenance projects.

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