September 1, 2012

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An examination of four divisive issues. WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?

Di Lewis, Heather Stewart, Sarah Ryther Francom

September 1, 2012

By Di Lewis

Those who are pushing for Utah to take control of its federal lands are misreading the law and endangering public lands, says Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The argument proponents of such a land transfer make is based on language in the Utah Constitution, which makes reference to “extinguishing” title to public lands. The problem, McIntosh says, is that it comes directly after language in which the state forever renounces claim on the land.

“It makes no sense at all for the section to read that Utah will ‘forever disclaim’ right or title to the federal lands and then in the same sentence require the U.S. to give federal lands to the state,” she says. “The provisions are completely inconsistent.”

Those who are calling for the federal government to turn over the land are making a “tortured interpretation” of the law, she says. The law is so clear that even the legislature’s attorney discourages pursuing legislative or legal action.

Aside from the legal concerns, McIntosh says the state has already talked about its intent to sell or lease some of the land. Far from the better protection promised, she says corporations would have more of an interest in profit than in management of public land—without a guarantee that the money coming from those deals would go to education, as the state says it will. States with similarly large percentages of federal land find ways to fund education at higher levels than Utah, she says.

What would remain under state control is also of concern. “They can barely keep the state parks open. It’s just really hard to find evidence of where the state of Utah has really made a firm commitment to wildlands protection,” says McIntosh.

The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars caring for the land and paying for things like fighting wildfires. It also has a broader set of interests, which the state doesn’t have, she says. Not only would caring for the land be financially impossible for the state, but a variety of environmental protections are in place that wouldn’t be otherwise, she says.

McIntosh says the federal government is often demonized, when in reality federal lands are those that belong to everyone and should continue to be enjoyed by everyone. “Who is the federal government? It’s us. It’s you and me. We own that land.”

Transferring federal lands to the state would not only fulfill a centuries-old promise, but would boost education spending and better protect public lands, says Utah Rep. Ken Ivory.

The state of Utah is looking to bring federal lands under state control, either through legislative or legal action. The basis for doing so is found in a historical policy of selling public lands and funding education through those sales, Ivory says. Instead, after promising “disposal” of public lands, the federal government began a policy of “reservation, conservation and preservation.”

That policy has left Utah schools underfunded and public lands in poor condition, he says. “That goes back to local control,” Ivory says. “Those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the land are going to be more responsive and responsible stewards.”

Utah has tremendous natural resources that could be sold or leased to provide the state with financial independence. The federal government is running an annual deficit and is the source of 35 percent of the state of Utah’s budget, he says. By relying on the federal government’s unsustainable spending, Ivory argues the state puts itself in danger.

Even with using the lands to pay for education and bring in extra money to the state, Ivory says the land will be better preserved. Utah has taken all national monuments except Escalante off the table for sale or lease and established a public lands commission, which allows Utahns to make decisions about Utah, he says. “Surely there’s a way to responsibly manage this resource.”

According to Ivory, the federal lands policy has moved from conservation to preservation, which has increased wildfires, killed animals and created pollution. “They’re loving it to death,” he says, adding that the state can’t do worse than the Forest Service has done.

Getting the proper funding for education is critical for Utah, Ivory says. The state is one of the lowest in the country in per-pupil spending, and taking advantage of Utah’s national resources would allow the state to increase its education funding.

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