State legislators pushing for transfer of federal lands
April 25, 2014
Tension between Western states and the federal government over control of public lands didn’t just recently come to a head with the fiasco over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s grazing on federal lands. There is an ongoing, broad movement among Western leaders to transfer title of those lands back to who they see as the rightful owners the states.
"Legislative leaders from across the Western U.S. [are] collaborating on action to compel Congress to honor to the Western states the very same statehood promises to extinguish transfer titles to federal lands that it did for states east of the Colorado [River]," said Utah Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan), who, along with Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder, organized the Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Lands last Friday.
Ivory and other Western leaders say they are merely calling on the federal government to fulfill a promise made in the 1894 Enabling Act that made Utah a state. Many public lands, except for designated national parks and wilderness areas created by Congress, should be transferred back to the states, they say.
Utah Rep. Kraig Powell (R-Heber City) said he is in support of Utah gaining control of certain federal lands. He calls it a matter of equity, adding that it is not fair that Utah must try to fund its schools and create tax revenue with such vast swaths of federal land in many counties.
"Our taxpayers deserve to have those lands be taxing and productive lands," Powell said. "Utah is consistently ranked as the best-managed state in the country. I’m confident that if and when we gain control of public lands, we will prudently manage and be able to figure out proper uses for them."
Utah Sen. Kevin Van Tassell (R-Vernal) said he is trying to work on exchanges of school trust lands in order to fund education. He said many Utah counties are living off of PILT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) funds given by the federal government to states with large amounts of federal lands. San Juan County in southeastern Utah, he said, is 92 percent either federal or tribal lands.
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"If we’re ever going to fund education in the state of Utah like we ought to be funding it, [taxes] need to come from our school trust lands at least," Van Tassell said.
Ivory said that 32 percent of Utah’s total state revenue comes from the federal government, which, he says manages its lands terribly.
"We have forests in tinder-box condition from federal forest policies, which have been destroying wildlife habitat and watersheds for decades," Ivory said. "The state already manages millions of acres of public land and they do it profitably and environmentally soundly."
With the passage of HB151 this past legislative session, sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton (R-Orem), an entity called the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands was created. This commission will review and make recommendations on federal lands to be returned to the state and will include state House and Senate members, as well as representatives from resource industries, local governments and resource managers, environmental groups and more.
Ivory said the committee has a four-step process to compel Congress to act on this issue: (1) education, (2) negotiation, (3) legislation and (4) litigation (which the state has already appropriated $2 million to begin building a case against the federal government).
Rep. Brian King (D-Salt Lake City), who represents Summit Park and portions of Pinebrook, said there are ways in which federal lands can be better managed but is concerned about the transfer of those lands to state hands on several levels.
"I question the legal basis for asserting that the federal government has the obligation to turn over all of its federal lands," King said. "I don’t see a lot of good, well-thought-out, specific plans for how to manage these federal lands when they are turned over to us."
The lands in question, King said, are very heavily subsidized by the federal government and Utah would find that disparity in funding as a disadvantage.
"These lands are extraordinarily environmentally sensitive. When you talk to people who want to have these lands turned over to us, they say we could develop oil, natural gas and coal," King said. "I’m not so ready to go and develop away these lands."
Powell maintained that Utah would conduct broad studies on what the proper uses for these lands would be, but said some would be sold off to private ownership. He said those decisions would be made similarly to how zoning is done in counties and cities, factoring in public input.
Natural resource development in these transferred lands would not be "overwhelming," Powell added, and said Utah leaders are aware of the sensitivity of many public lands in the state and would be judicious in determining which are yielded to resource development.
"Our Utah policy makers state, county and local are certainly not oblivious to the fact that we have wonderful [natural] treasures and crown jewels in Utah," Powell said. "There is no intention to disturb those."
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