Good Utahns — conservative, free-market Republicans — are often heard to say that the marketplace should set priorities and allocate resources. That the government should not pick winners and losers.
Well, the market has spoken. It wants public lands. Lots and lots of public lands. National parks. Recreation areas. Monuments. Places to go to get away from it all, even if, as was documented in a Salt Lake Tribune/Guardian article published Sunday, it all comes with you.
Yet the political leadership of Utah — at the state level and, far too often, locally — is in active denial of this truth.
Like the most dedicated Soviet central planners, too many of our politicians keep coming up with hare-brained plans to throw millions in taxpayer subsidies at terminals for the terminal coal industry. Or to open up more federal territory to oil and gas drilling, even as low prices mean that so many of the leases that have already been let aren’t being drilled.
It is all willful ignorance of the fact that coal is, and should be, dead, that the nation needs to be moving away from its reliance on fossil fuels and, most of all, that Utah is in a position to lead the way on the shift to solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.
We saw the now-sidelined plan to pour $53 million in state money into a goofy seaport to handle the shipment of Utah coal to China. Then the Legislature grabbed control of a quarter of Salt Lake City’s territory for a monstrosity to be called an inland port, a development that could and should have been left to the city to manage were it not for a fear that the municipality is governed by people who worry about air quality a little too much.
We saw a rogues’ gallery of our public officials turn out to celebrate the downsizing of the national monuments of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears in what was, at its root, an act of childish petulance. Which is why the president was so eager to participate, as that’s his favorite mood.
Folks in this state are well familiar with the concept of loving our public lands to death. It is harder and harder to get into places like Arches or Zion national parks. The traffic is backed up, the lines are long, the quiet and solitude such places are valued for are basically a thing of the past. But the ancient natural beauty of those places — combined with the modern drive to photograph yourself standing there and post it on social media — keeps people coming just the same.
The same is true at national parks throughout the West. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and others are often full and foul. People leave behind all kinds of waste. They annoy wildlife and one another. There are fistfights over the last parking space. Demands on overstretched rangers, law enforcement officers and others are beyond the breaking point.
It is stunning that anyone in authority can look at all of this and not conclude the obvious: We need more national parks. We need more money to staff and police them. We need more electric buses to give us access to them. Bigger parking lots. Better-planned, less-obtrusive cities and campgrounds and concessions and souvenir shops, with development in places that are already towns and the lightest footprint possible everywhere else.
Some fees should probably be raised to better care for all this inventory. But as taxpayers from New Jersey to Los Angeles enjoy these parks and other lands, their elected representatives should be willing to contribute more from the federal kitty. And our elected representatives, especially new guys Mitt Romney and Ben McAdams, should be about getting that done.
Well-protected public lands are worth at least as much in taxpayer subsidy as any coal port, oil well or anything else that is never, ever shown in the very successful ad campaigns for Utah’s national parks.