The grievous consequences of the 2016 election have yet to unfold, but there’s one thing we can be sure of: Utah politicians will not give up their quest to seize federal public lands––in fact, their fervor and bravado are certain to increase. As we steel ourselves for what lies ahead, let’s take a look at how the State of Utah manages lands currently under its care (warning: the view isn’t pretty).
It’s not in your guidebook, but west of Arches National Park is a portal to another universe. It’s called Klonzo, a name that somehow conveys the disorder therein with sci-fi prescience. Klonzo is a chunk of land given to the State of Utah in a land exchange. There, Utah is providing us an extraordinary peek into its management ideals. Or more aptly, its lack thereof.
In the Klonzoverse, RVs and ATVs spill across the desert without rule. Their sheer size and muscular labels—Vengeance, Apex—leave one wondering if they are truly vehicles, or perhaps aspiring planets. Every overhang, dry wash, and loop is an unregulated campsite. Klonzo Descartes says: “I trample, therefore I am.” And solitude? Beside the point.
Stubborn rabbitbrush and blackbrush cling to existence across the pummeled shale, but their wan efforts only underscore the devastation. “Denuded” is my friend’s diagnosis, and this name is both accurate and insufficient. It’s indeed a land made nude, and raw. But the disgrace is both what is taken and what is added. The “Mad Max” reality at Klonzo—part campsite, part car lot—is an affront to nature. And if Utah were to ever have its way, and steal from us all the millions of acres of public lands in the state, Klonzo is the universe to which we’d all be transported.
Since the state passed legislation to advance the goal of seizing for itself an American birthright, conversations about the land grab trend to high-minded pooh-poohing of the legality of the quest, or chesty screeds about the tyranny of the federal government. Utah’s own legislative counsel (whose good counsel was ignored), and the Conference of Western Attorneys General all see little chance of success in the courts. Still, Utah has already allocated some $14 million to the cause.
The essential point is not that the state probably can’t succeed; it is that the state must not succeed. American public lands are the tangible symbols of some of our highest ideals. In a season when those ideals have been battered beyond recognition, a weary public requires space to remember our greatness––and perhaps to rediscover our humility. Public lands have always served as that venue.
After all, it’s not enough to say, “That won’t happen.” We just witnessed a damaged reality TV star ascend to the U.S. presidency. Our imaginations have lately failed us. But in Utah, we don’t need imagination. We have boatloads of evidence about what the state does with precious land. It neither begins nor ends at Klonzo.
The Fallacy of “It’s for the Children”
The drawing of lines on maps is consequential. Wars have begun, and rage now, over exactly this. In Utah, we have no war, per se. But we have bitter disputes over bad land policy that often stems from arbitrary map lines. One such set of lines delineates the lands managed by the state’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
Utah’s enabling act for statehood “forever disclaim[ed] all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.” Basically, Utah gave up what wasn’t already claimed by white settlers. Pioneers chose not to settle in the disclaimed lands, for reasons of water, arability, and logistics. Those early settlement patterns only distill the irony: the ignored lands are the ones battled over today.
At statehood, it was agreed that Utah should get additional land for further growth––those random lines on a map. The system devised was arbitrary: every 36-square-mile township got certain square parcels of land to use in support of public schools. The result was a haphazard scattering of lands, with no thought given to their suitability for the cause.
Today, school holdings are in river beds, on canyon walls, and in the most remote and wild parts of the state—certainly a heck of a bus ride. SITLA is in charge of maximizing returns from those parcels in any way imaginable.
So, what’s any way imaginable? Sometimes, looking over the vast expanse of pinyon-juniper forests near Cedar Mesa, you might see a shaved, precisely square plot of land. That’s where the highest revenue-generating swindle to be gleaned was chaining these forests to improve “forage” for cows. Or you might drive down Highway 191 out of Moab and wonder just what that wacky, lonesome subdivision is doing there. The answer to desert riddles like these is often SITLA.
Perhaps the worst project of all is the PR Springs tar sands development near the Book Cliffs—a climate nightmare for which the agency blithely unrolled the red carpet. SITLA routinely leases land for oil and gas, oil shale and mining, but tar sands may be the single worst energy option humans have ever conceived. And the borderland of Utah’s Grand and Uintah counties will be the first fiefdom of the Lord of Dirty Fuels in the United States. The Canadian company behind the project estimates it will need two barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced—water pumped from aquifers under the nation’s second driest state. But remember, it’s for the children!
Nonsense. In 2015, Utah ranked 51st (including the District of Columbia) on per-pupil spending for education. Despite boasts of largesse, SITLA’s contribution was just 1 to 2 percent of Utah’s education budget. Clearly, this system isn’t for kids. To “fund our schools” we steal their wilderness and neglect to fund our schools.
Utah politicos claim schools are poorly funded because the state is burdened by too much federal land––land beyond the reach of taxation. Again, nonsense. Of 50 states, Utah is ranked 24th in non-federal land per capita—dead typical, a C student. Twenty-six states are working with less. The key word here is “working.” New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Rhode Island all fund their schools better than Utah does—despite having less non-federal land per capita upon which to rely. Correlation does not equal causation.
And it’s not that the money isn’t there. Since its inception, SITLA has sold off more than half of its original 7.4 million acres and amassed a nest egg of $2 billion—with a “b.” In 2009, SITLA outraged even the lapdog state legislature with news it had given its top executives bonuses totaling $269,000. They gave the bonuses early to limbo beneath a statewide budget bar.
The current director has vowed he’ll grow the trust to $3 billion during his tenure—cha-ching! (That’s more than the gross domestic product of many small countries, including Belize, Lesotho and Bhutan.) The agency certainly seems motivated. In mid-October SITLA sold drop-dead gorgeous parcels adjacent to Canyonlands and Zion national parks, and on culturally significant Comb Ridge, for a paltry total of $5.5 million dollars.
Speaking of Money
The SITLA example is instructive because that agency is forced to make money from its lands. If Utah ever succeeded in taking over federal lands, it would find itself in a similar position. Managing land is actually really expensive, and to do it, Utah would need to somehow come up with the money.
Researchers at the University of Utah, Utah State University and Weber State University studied the matter. Their 2014 report found that just maintaining federal land in Utah costs the U.S. about $8 an acre, or $247 million. It’s hard to say how much of that cost would carry over to the state, since it would depend on––ahem––how much land it sells off, as well as how it manages the remainder. The state also must account for the money the feds pump in beyond basic management. Federal land management creates 2,100 jobs (often in Utah’s most rural outposts). That means the loss of roughly 2,100 jobs federal land management creates, the 5,000 jobs supported in turn, and the infusions of cash that slough off to state, county and municipal coffers as a result. All told, the researchers put the full cost to Utah at about $280 million. Put another way, $280 million would pay the salaries of this season’s Utah Jazz roster for three-and-a-half seasons. It’s a lot of cash for Utah taxpayers to absorb.
There are also catastrophic outlays for things like firefighting to tally. 2015 was the most expensive fire season ever in the U.S. Federal agencies’ combined suppression costs were $2.1 billion nationwide—not counting hidden expenses like insurance payouts. Nearly 9 million acres of wildlands burned. So, if Utah wants responsibility for 30 million acres of public lands, it needs to absorb firefighting duties as well. Can Utah taxpayers really afford to carry the water?
The 2014 study does say Utah could take over and theoretically stay in the black, but only if it sells off lands, and if the price of oil stays at $92 a barrel. At the time of writing, a barrel of oil is $50. Even at $62, the study says, the state can’t make it work.
And here’s the thing about the sell-off: Utah’s own legal theory says it will net only 5 percent of proceeds from any land sale and will give the rest to Uncle Sam. That means a $20 parcel will yield the state a crisp dollar.
For Utah to afford public lands, it will have to do everything it can to exploit them, sell tons of them, and defeat the realities of an international economy––and it may burn the house down.
Maybe you’ve seen the video on YouTube? A camera pans across a redrock nirvana. A climber, ascendant, bold, regards the view. And then? Ska horns AND rap. Duuuuude! We’re in for something, and it may not even be a Citi ad.
It’s not. It’s 27-million-and-counting YouTube views of kids using Corona Arch, a short hike just outside of Moab, as a giant rope swing. Who cares that the forces that made that arch are the chance union of porous rock and water’s resolve? Who cares that there’s a nice view, except the cameraman? The camera seeks something beyond beauty, better than wildness. The point of the wild places is the taming of them. What elephants can you bag, Teddy? In the 21st century, manifest destiny is the dominion of the rope-swingers, the dirt bikers, the “freeriders” sponsored by Red Bull.
What wasn’t in the video were the complaints of other visitors, or the sandstone’s rope scars, or the lost potential of the man who died imitating the stunt. And it missed SITLA’s subsequent fret about liability. The agency ditched Corona Arch, one of its holdings, in a trade with BLM. The feds then banned the swinging. We don’t always say the BLM is courageous. But sometimes it is.
There is more to public lands than adrenaline. At SUWA, we recreate, too—we’ve got climbers, bikers, boaters, hikers, hunters. Recreation is part of what public lands mean to everyone, but it can’t be the justification for the maintenance of nature. Mature land management requires accommodating human recreation—in its endless forms—to the basic dignity and essence of the land itself. The beauty of wilderness is its nonhumanity—neither with us nor against us, but us-adjacent, and us-reflective. A place to see oneself, and something apart. That’s the final piece lost if Utah seizes our lands. In that new universe, there’s no greater cause than money and festival. Welcome to Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Where Does It End?
Utah is suing the feds for ownership of more than 30,000 miles of “routes” it deems essential to get anywhere (see sidebar on page 16). More nonsense. The issue isn’t travel, it is control. Utah’s highest and best use is the highest profit margin. The website for Utah’s state parks highlights three programs, two of which require buzzing around on ATVs or buzzing around on boats. And at Dead Horse Point or Kodachrome Basin state parks, bike trails spread like lies across a candid land. They were built in desperation to fund those same parks.
Utah yearns for the economy of the 1800s. And Utah believes it owns the land of the American people, who have, until now, saved it. In a land of rocks: Money, oil, adrenaline! What else could be out there? The answer is everything. We measure value differently. And despite our scuffles with the BLM, we are so glad they, and the federal government, are in charge. They’re the only thing standing between us and the Klonzoverse. Utah must never succeed in taking us there.
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, autumn/winter 2016 issue)