Almost exactly two-thirds of land in Utah, 66.5 percent, is federally owned. We have easy access to those lands.
In the 59 years since I first entered Utah, I have enjoyed land the United States owns and federal employees manage. Sometimes it was a family outing or hunting with friends. Other times it was to save my sanity. After skyscrapers fell on 9-11, I went alone and sat by a stream on Cache National Forest.
I have been fortunate to work with good people who dedicate their lives to taking care of our public land. Some were ranchers whose grandparents settled there. Others were college-educated land specialists. Many were my ex-students, charged with managing our land. Still others were scientists doing research to unlock secrets of the Earth; others applied their research results to keep our land healthy.
Our public lands provide temporary storage of water, held as snow, that is legally claimed by individuals, towns, farms and businesses downstream. They are habitat for wildlife and fish. They provide rights-of-way for roads, highways and utility lines to connect cities and land owned by private individuals. They offer hunting, camping and unique recreational opportunities for all Americans. Some are in Utah, but they belong to you and me.
Public lands provide livelihood, mainly through grazing and tourism, for people living in some of the most remote and poorest communities in our country. The vast majority of people depending on public lands are those of us who live near them. It makes sense that the owners of the land, we-the-people of the United States, should provide our hired managers (Forest Service, BLM, etc.) adequate funds to manage them.
Utahns have a birdnest on the ground. We only provide a tiny bit of funding for public lands that lie within our state. People in all 49 other states provide funds for care of our lands in Utah. The federal government pays Utah counties with public lands in their borders funds in lieu of taxes. What a deal!
Instead of appreciating benefits our federal lands bring to Utah, some officials want state control of public lands. Gov. Gary Herbert is pushing a “roadless issue” petition that would encourage access roads and other activities to control fires on public land. Some fear it would attract houses and development of in-holdings. Opponents say it is a step toward control of federal land. Whatever the proposal, expansion of state activities on public lands should be initiated by the landowner (federal government), not the state.
There are roughly 325 million people in our United States. About 3.1 million are Utahns. Apparently our governor wants fewer than 1 percent of Americans to dictate land use on federal land jointly owned by the other 99 percent.
Utah people wanting control of the American people’s lands should realize global warming is real. A new report issued by the World Meteorological Organization says 2018 will be the fourth-warmest year on record. Most increasing temperatures come from densely populated, privately owned areas, not publicly owned wildlands.
We expect state officials to spend their time managing land Utahns own: concentrating housing, building up instead of out, decreasing use of fossil fuels, increasing public transportation, adjusting utility rates to reward efficient use, punishing wasteful activities, etc. There’s more to gain by improving Utah than meddling with Americans’ public lands. We Americans do better when we tackle problems in our jurisdiction and depend on science rather than beliefs.
Thad Box is professor emeritus in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, serving as dean of the college from 1970 to 1990.