Commentary: Lee’s public lands plan pits Utahns against each other

We can create a Utah where these shared spaces are maintained, protected and restored rather than sold off to developers and extractive industries.

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2018, file photo, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate Floor at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City. President Donald Trump's list of candidates for the Supreme Court, posted on White House website in November 2017 includes Lee. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Don’t believe Sen. Mike Lee when he says Utah has to choose between public lands and affordable housing. It’s a false choice and a dirty trick. And it flies in the face of Utahns’ actual experience of the beautiful landscapes we treasure.

In a recent speech to the conservative Sutherland Institute, Lee repeatedly demonized public lands and touted three horrible bills he intends to introduce to destroy them.

Despite Lee’s claims, Utahns overwhelmingly support public lands. According to the 2018 Conservation in the West poll, 91 percent of Utahns visited federally managed public lands last year, and 65 percent said rollbacks of laws that protect land, water and wildlife are a serious problem.

Throughout his rant, the Utah senator spun a revisionist history aimed at sowing division and fostering hatred. Among other things, Lee claimed that “the federal government’s vast estate is preserved for the enjoyment of the very few: For an upper-crust elite who want to transform the American West into so many picturesque tourist villages and uninhabited vistas.”

But there’s no point in refuting all of Lee’s mistruths and twisted logic. What’s needed is a gut check about public lands and Utah’s future.

Think about your last trip into the Wasatch, the Uintas, Zion or Bryce Canyon. Did you feel, as Lee apparently does, caged and oppressed by a tyrannical government? Or did you feel free to escape into a spectacular, peaceful landscape?

In public lands, we retain a vision of an egalitarian society. No one gets a better seat at Flaming Gorge than anyone else. We draw strength and inspiration from the canyons and mountains and deserts — and from the wildlife that call them home. We spend time with our loved ones or in solitary contemplation, uninterrupted by the noise and pressures of daily life.

Public lands are a democratizing force and they belong to everyone. At least for now.

Lee wants to unravel that.

One of his bills would transfer federal public lands to states, even though he must know that Western states cannot afford to manage them. States would be forced to sell public lands to private interests to mine, drill, log and develop.

Second, he wants to gut the Antiquities Act and effectively prevent any new national monuments in Utah, despite the fact that our state’s natural beauty has been an economic boon to communities from Kanab to Kamas.

His third bill would give states the power to sell public lands for housing and other developments deemed to be a benefit to the community. Who decides what a “benefit” is? Not voters.

These proposals are a slap in the face to Utahns and a wish list for corporate interests. They showcase Lee’s short-sighted, narrow view of what we can accomplish together. And they go against the wishes of the people he’s elected to represent.

We can do better. We can create a Utah where these shared spaces are maintained, protected and restored rather than sold off to developers and extractive industries. A Utah where respect, justice, cooperation and kindness are the norm ― not ruthless competition and greed.

We need to demand that our state legislators stop spending taxpayer dollars to subsidize fossil-fuel extraction on public lands. We need to insist that our congressional representatives stop advancing legislation that strips protections from beautiful landscapes in our state and instead tell them that they must keep public lands accessible for generations to come.

Maybe one day Lee will join us to work together toward a radically better Utah. But we’re not holding our breath, and we’re not waiting. It’s a future we’re already creating.

Ryan Beam is a Salt Lake City resident and a public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. Kirsten Johanna Allen is executive director at Torrey House Press, a nonprofit book publisher promoting conservation through literature. She lives in Torrey and Salt Lake City.