Tribune Editorial: Utah has a chance at a better approach to managing public lands

State should work with the Biden administration — and it with us — to protect the lands that belong to all of us.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking west from a parcel of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) that was recently leased to an oil and gas company in San Juan County. The parcel was in the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, which President-elect Joe Biden has promised to restore. The Bears Ears Buttes are visible on the far horizon. December 16, 2020.

All that land within the borders of the state of Utah that is owned by the government of the United States of America — about 65% of our total acres — has a big sign on it: Under new management.

It is an opportunity for Utah’s elected leaders to form a new, more productive, more realistic relationship with the landlords of so much of the land that surrounds us. And for the new administration to do the same.

Utah is a public lands state. Some of those vistas are among the most strikingly beautiful on the planet. Others, not so much. There are mineral resources, culturally and spiritually significant artifacts and landscapes and wide open spaces attractive to those seeking peace and those looking for a spot to run their off-road vehicles.

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Most important, Utah’s federal lands provide significant opportunities for economic growth in the tourism, recreation and sustainable energy sectors — businesses that depend on preserving the land rather than destroying it, industries that have a sustainable future as opposed to boom-and-bust cycles. Our state should embrace that status rather than try to deny it.

National monuments

As part of a long list of executive actions taken in President Joe Biden’s first hours in office, the president set in motion a bureaucratic process that will likely result in the restoration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments to the size each was before President Donald Trump — on thin legal grounds — reduced them by more than 2 million acres.

The argument that Bears Ears, established in the last days of Barack Obama’s administration, was a surprise that didn’t consider the interests or preferences of the locals is not grounded in reality. The declaration was the end of a years-long process and, in the end, fulfilled the cultural rights and aspirations of five Native American tribes. Elected officials in Grand and San Juan counties, as well as the towns of Bluff and Moab, are on record supporting the monument’s restoration.

Grand Staircase was different, at least in the beginning. That designation was truly a shock to Utah officials, announced by President Bill Clinton in 1996 with an eye toward burnishing his environmental bona fides in Arizona.

But, over the years, that monument has become the status quo, proving a boon to the recreation and tourist economy, supported by towns and chambers of commerce, ratified by acts of Congress, with the federal government swapping out some state land inside the monument for more mineral-rich acres elsewhere, and paying the state $50 million to boot.

A similar level of attention is now owed to Bears Ears, so that the area can be managed and protected rather than become, as it has, an unguarded beacon to unshepherded tourists and undisciplined artifact hunters.

RS2477 roads

It is also time for the state to abandon its interminable claims to 36,000 miles of not-really roads, fractured into 14,500 segments around the state, claimed under the auspices of a 155-year-old law known as RS2477. The purpose of the law was to facilitate mining in the Wild West, not to give state and local government claims to roads that serve no purpose other than as a lure for people riding off-road vehicles.

The matter has already gone through a Bleak House level of legal challenges, costing the Utah taxpayer millions to no good end. Perhaps there are really are some RS2477 roads somewhere that lead to a working mine, or provide a route for a rural school bus. Otherwise, it’s time to let it go.

Oil and gas leasing

Meanwhile, the opposition from Utah elected officials to the new administration’s hold on new oil and gas leases on federal land is more theater than policy. The price of fossil fuels is low and not likely to come back. Exploration on private land will meet our needs at no risk to national treasures. The economic and environmental benefits of moving to renewable energy sources are great, if we will only take the hints the new administration has given us.

The future of Utah

Under Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah presented a confusing face to the world, advertising our Mighty 5 national parks and other tourist destinations even as it opposed the national monuments. The result was the serious tarnishing of our name as the unofficial Outdoor Capital of the World and chasing off such economic engines as the Outdoor Retailers expositions and other recreation-oriented companies.

Plans from the new governor, Spencer Cox, stick to the state’s opposition to the monuments and to its reliance on fossil fuels.

Perhaps the two new administrations can work out an understanding. They can start by listening more attentively to the people who really live on and near Utah’s public lands, a growing majority of whom see the preservation of the past as their future.