Imagine all federal lands in Utah sitting comfortably atop a sturdy steel desk. Not a flashy platform, maybe, but functional and sturdy. Now imagine transferring those lands to a wooden three-legged stool. A different platform now, but it serves the purpose. Or does it?
Sen. Mike Lee and other lands-transfer proponents want you to believe that gaining ownership of all public lands to Utah is a good idea. Unfortunately, the three legs on which they base their claims are cracked, rotten and riddled with termites.
Lee & Co. argue that 1) there is good legal rationale supporting a transfer; 2) owning the land will benefit Utah financially; and 3) Utah can manage public lands better than the feds.
There’s no evidence supporting the last point. State politicians and land managers are under the same pressures and constraints to balance competing interests as the feds, including budgets. Anti-feds starve government agencies of funds they need to properly manage their portfolios, then cry, “Mismanagement!” And claiming that state officials, being “closer than Washington bureaucrats,” can manage Utah lands better is cracked. Our public lands are managed on the ground by dedicated civil servants of the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Forest Service and National Park Service, federal employees who live right here in Utah.
The second, rotten leg, then: The feds pour $250 million a year into public land management in Utah. We also receive $41 million annually for Payment in Lieu of Taxes. PILT compensates rural counties with large federal land holdings for uncollected property taxes because the feds don’t tax themselves on those lands.
Where is Utah going to come up with $290 million annually if 30-plus million acres of public land suddenly fall in our lap? I know! Let’s raise our taxes. That’s a good thing, right? After all, grabbing that federal land makes financial sense! Or we could sell the land to commercial, industrial or residential interests — also a good thing because Utah could then collect property taxes on that developed land (or tax ourselves on the undeveloped land, something the feds are too stupid to do). Or we could lease the land to oil, mining or logging interests, never mind that this would jeopardize our $12.3 billion annual outdoor recreation industry employing 110,000 Utah taxpayers.
And the termite-riddled third leg? The Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that authority over federal lands resides only with Congress: “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” Further, the claim that Utah can legally “take back” public lands is false. We never owned those lands! Utah gave up any claim to federal lands when we became a state: “the people inhabiting [Utah] do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof [Utah’s Enabling Act, 1894].”
Finally, numerous Supreme Court decisions and broad federal legislation, including Pollard’s Lessee v Hagan (1845), Utah Power & Light v U.S. (1917), and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 affirm the federal government’s authority to hold, manage or dispose of all federal lands as it deems appropriate. The FLPMA expressly requires the federal government to retain ownership in public lands unless “it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.”
Transferring public lands to Utah is a terrible idea. You and I own those lands, as do all Americans, for our mutual and personal benefit and enjoyment. Run off the snake oil salesmen who would take that away from you.
Scott Bell, West Jordan, is a retired engineer and candidate for Utah House District 47.