Can Utah Afford to Take Ownership of Federal Public Lands? Almost one hundred citizens turned out to answer that question at a public meeting in Salt Lake City yesterday, and more than half of them were there to say “NO.”
Many sported green apple-shaped stickers reading “For Kids and Lands,” indicating their belief that Governor Herbert’s effort to seize federal lands is bad for Utah’s children and its world renowned public lands.
The Governor’s office hosted the meeting to receive input on an economic analysis that will assess how much money the state of Utah could make by taking ownership of the federal lands within its borders. The study was mandated by the legislature earlier this year as a step toward implementing the “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” a law demanding that the federal government turn over 30 million acres of public land in Utah to the state by December 31, 2014.
Proponents of the Governor’s land grab insist state ownership will increase state revenues because it will facilitate expanded dirty fuel development (including coal mining in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument) and allow the state to sidestep federal regulations requiring environmental impact studies and public comment.
Citizens opposing state ownership spoke out against the land grab and what it would mean for the scenic, recreational and natural values of public lands now owned by all Americans.
“We should be looking at things other than money when we look at the future of our public lands,” said one citizen. “How are you going to put a fiscal note on beauty and nature” asked another. “Not everything important has monetary value.”
Salt Lake City School Board member, Heather Bennett, spoke on behalf of For Kids and Lands, a group of educators, parents and students calling for “stewardship not seizure” of Utah’s public lands. Noting that the state’s own legislative counsel has said the land transfer law has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional”, she described the land grab as “akin to chasing an imaginary unicorn, a mermaid, or even a vampire!”
“This effort diverts taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be invested in education,” she said. “This is not the future we want for our children and lands.”
Pat Shea, the former Director of the Bureau of Land Management, described the land grab as “a pipe dream that may satisfy some people’s political appetite, but is outside reality.
Several citizens asked if the economic analysis would look at the impact to all Americans who now own federal lands in Utah. The answer was “No.” . One citizen objected, “The public lands in Utah belong to all Americans, not just Utahns. They have paid to manage and protect them for decades.”
Others asked if the analysis would assess the potential health effects from pollution produced by expanded dirty energy development. The answer was also “No.” “How can you not consider health effects?” demanded one citizen. “Who is going to pay the cost of clean up? Are you going to leave the public holding the bag?”
A father who said he was speaking for “my kids and kids 100 years out” pointed out that a growing body of research documents the economic benefit of protected public lands to local communities
Another citizen observed that Utah’s existing national parks and other protected landscapes have provided significant economic benefits to local communities and suggested the economic analysis look at the benefits of creating new parks and protected landscapes.
Ken Theis of Utah Backcountry Hunters and Anglers pointed out that the majority of hunting and fishing in Utah takes place on public lands and serves as a huge economic driver for many rural communities. “What will happen if that benefit went away because we lost public lands in Utah?” he asked.
Numerous county representatives, however, stood up to speak in favor of the land grab, insisting that the state could “do a better job” than the federal government, and urging the state to press ahead with seizing federal lands.
The economic analysis is due to be released in November 2014. To submit your own comments, email: firstname.lastname@example.org