In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a bill (the Transfer of Public Lands Act, or TPLA) demanding that the federal government turn over almost all public land in the state by the end of 2014. Governor Gary Herbert signed the bill, despite the state’s own lawyers warning the Governor that the law will only trigger a costly and ultimately futile legal battle because the premise on which it is based has a “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.” The litigation costs to taxpayers will likely run into the millions of dollars. Ignoring these warnings, in 2013 the state legislature authorized a $450,000 taxpayer-funded study to determine whether taking over public lands would make economic sense. This study was released to the public on December 1st, 2014. Despite efforts to spin the economic report to the contrary, the report in fact revealed several flaws in the plan.

The Plan is Unconstitutional

While examining the economic feasibility of seizing public land, Utah’s report ignores the most basic question: whether the plan is even legal. It isn’t:

  • A 2014 analysis by constitutional and legal scholars at the University of Utah concluded that “Utah has no legal right to the land it demands, and the federal government has the constitutional authority to retain lands in federal ownership. The federal government gave Western states over 70 million acres of public land, and newly admitted states explicitly disclaimed all rights to additional land.”
  • The legislature’s legal counsel also warned that the courts would likely find these efforts unconstitutional. “The Transfer of Public Lands Act requires that the United States extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to Utah by [December 31, 2014]… [T]hat requirement would interfere with Congress’ power to dispose of public lands. Thus, that requirement, and any attempt by Utah in the future to enforce the requirement, have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.” Again, this is from the Utah legislature’s own legal counsel.
  • The Utah Constitution “forever disclaims any interest in public lands within the state’s boundaries.” (Utah Constitution, Art. 3, Section 1, Second Clause.)
  • The Supreme Court of the United States has held that “Congress has the same power over [territory] as over any other property belonging to the United States; and this power is vested in Congress without limitation.” In other words, the federal government is under no more obligation to sell off public lands in Utah than it is to sell off a federal courthouse in Kansas City — or to sell off the White House or a military base.

Those who argue that the federal government has an obligation to turn over federal land to Utah are ignoring two hundred years of case law — and common sense.

The Plan Relies on High Oil Prices

Setting aside the fact that seizing public lands, as Utah demands, is unconstitutional, the state’s own economic report shows that it is economically viable only under the rosiest of scenarios, and relies on high oil prices for the state to afford the more than $280 million per year that the federal government spends managing Utah’s public lands. As the Salt Lake Tribune noted, the “land transfer would tie Utah’s future to oil:”

  • The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) analyzed the state’s economic report and found that “Economists studied multiple scenarios for Utah to generate needed revenues. In nearly all, Utah cannot afford the costs without putting Utah taxpayers on the hook for the difference. According to the economists’ findings, Utah could come up between $35 million short and $69 million short per year.
  • The only way to make the numbers “pencil out” for Utah and make state management of public lands affordable is to dream of a pie-in-the-sky scenario in which the federal government not only hands over the lands to Utah, but also gives Utah its share of oil and gas revenues from those lands. As Public Lands Solutions points out, “All Americans own federal land, and today we split oil and gas royalties 50/50 between the state government and the federal government. But under the new state-management scenario the study assumes that 100% of these revenues will go to Utah, leaving federal taxpayers with nothing. Are the rest of Americans going to stand by passively and let Utah take this money?”
  • “If the state is unable to take U.S. taxpayers’ share of royalties, the state would be forced to look elsewhere for revenue to cover land management costs, including raising taxes and selling off prized lands to private companies,” according to the Center for American Progress.
Source: Salt Lake Tribune
Source: Salt Lake Tribune

The Plan Would Damage Utah’s Wildlands and Recreation Economy

The report makes clear that making the numbers work requires a radical departure from the status quo, and would come at the expense of Utah’s outdoor and natural heritage:

  • Outdoor recreation is a vital part of Utah’s economy. Each year in Utah, the outdoor recreation industry generates $12 billion in consumer spending and $856 million in state and local tax revenues. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Utah directly supports 122,000 Utah jobs, generating an additional $3.6 billion per year in wages and salaries. Even Utah Governor Gary Herbert recognizes outdoor recreation, tourism, and outdoor-related businesses as key pillars of Utah’s growing and diversifying economy, arguing that ensuring the continued health and beauty of Utah’s outdoor assets must be a part of Utah’s long-term strategic thinking.
  • Nonetheless, “[t]o make up for cost shortfalls, Utah would have to rapidly increase the pace and scale of drilling and other development at the expense of Utah’s renowned recreational opportunities and quality of life,” writes CWP. “In their analysis, the economists look at the potential to generate revenue from uranium, tar sands, oil shale, coal, and other mineral extraction in places like Desolation Canyon, the San Rafael Swell, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”
  • Field and Stream magazine notes the danger that such state-ownership plans present to hunters, fishermen and other outdoorsmen: “While state ownership of the lands might sound great to some of us, if we look a bit more closely at state budgets, we will see that no state has the resources to manage these lands- a single forest or range fire would send state officials scrambling to sell them off.”

The state’s economic study on the seizure of public lands in Utah provides important warnings regarding the economic realities of such a land takeover. Among other things, it shows that if the state were to seize federal lands, under most scenarios, it would be a net money loser. Far from bankrolling Utah’s public schools, as proponents of the legislation claim, this takeover would serve to enrich private interests but rob all Americans of their priceless natural heritage. This is why a majority of Westerners oppose state control of federal lands.

What Others Are Saying

Salt Lake Tribune: “Land transfer would tie Utah’s future to oil.”
Odgen Standard Examiner: “[L]egislators must be cautioned that the economic scenario from the report is not all roses… [I]t’s a roll of the dice.”
Deseret News: “The state law that demands ownership of federal land is likely to end up as little more than a symbolic gesture. Even if successful, it would come with significant risk to Utah taxpayers.”
University of Utah: “Utah has no legal right to the land it demands.”

Pushing Back

In December 2014,  SUWA launched a statewide media campaign to educate the state’s residents about the true costs of the state’s efforts to seize public lands. Check out our ad, below: