Wandering the West
February 28, 2012
When I was growing up in the Midwest, my family loved to hunt game birds. But every time we set out to pursue pheasants, grouse, ducks and geese, the hunt didn’t begin without permission. It took a trip to a farmer’s house, with some nosing around in the barn or milk house to find the owner and ask his permission, to walk his fields to scare up birds. Nearly every acre of land, except for state parks, was privately owned. The public could use the land only with permission, usually accompanied by the exchange of some twenty-dollar bills.
The first time I came West on my own, I was conditioned to look around for someone to ask for permission to camp or hike. I’d never actually considered the notion of public land. But now, as a thirty-plus-year resident of a public lands state, I, of course, take for granted the fact that this land of mountains and deserts is my land, and I don’t really have to search for the owner to seek permission because the owner is me and you.
But it’s now silly season on Utah’s Capitol Hill, and the drumbeat is louder than usual that it’s past time for the federal government to hand over all its forests, desert landscapes, rivers and reservoirs to responsible stewards of the land Utah legislators. A candidate for governor, Morgan Philpot, is quoted saying, "We are a sovereign state. That is our land stolen from us." To Philpot, the "us" are current-day Utah leaders, not the Native Americans who had their land stolen from them by our leaders’ ancestors. The argument that federal land was "stolen" is preposterous. The argument that "us" should get it all is equally so.
So now, while Utah faces so many real crises, such as low per-pupil education spending and a reluctance to invest in higher education, our lawmakers are busy writing and passing laws handing the federal government an ultimatum to return their "stolen" lands to "us" in Utah, who surely know what’s best. Even the legislature’s own legal staff warns that such laws are likely unconstitutional, but lawmakers can’t wait to pass them, and Governor Herbert can’t wait to sign them. He says setting a deadline for the return of the land, say, in 2014, could finally force a resolution. I can feel the whole Interior Department building on Washington’s C Street shaking in fear of Utah’s mighty legislature.
Let me recall a few instances from my news-reporting past that illustrate how well Utah has managed its own state lands. It leased a coal seam near iconic Factory Butte near Hanksville to a private mining operation. The operator’s methods exposed the coal seam, which caught on fire. When we asked the state land manager supervising that state asset what he was doing about the fact that the mine was abandoned and burning, he did not know either fact. "Fire? What fire?" "Abandoned? What do you mean abandoned?"
On state land outside of Natural Bridges National Monument, the state hired bulldozer operators to "chain" the land to remove trees and encourage grasses to grow so cattle could graze. The land contained a rare two-story structure built of rocks a thousand years earlier by an ancient culture. To "chain" land, two bulldozers drive in parallel with a big logging chain between them that rips pinion and juniper and anything else in the path out of the ground. And, of course, the ancient structure was in the path and the state, in its infinite wisdom, chained the structure standing for a thousand years into a pile of rocks. This is how our state has managed public land in the past.
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Look to the West Desert along I-80. There, state land has been converted to uses such as a nuclear-waste dump, a toxic-waste incinerator, and a hazardous-waste landfill. State ownership has brought Utah many wonderful things, from piles of rocks to burning coal mines to a reputation as the place America dumps the waste no one else wants. Thanks, Utah!
Just below Yovimpa Point at the end of Bryce Canyon National Park, a California company once wanted to strip-mine coal to ship to Japan. Federal land managers said no. In the Boulder Mountains, an island oasis of Ponderosa pine rising high above the desert near Escalante, loggers clamored for the rights to cut more of the 500-year old pines to turn into 2 by 4s. Federal land managers said no. In Utah’s hands, the answers would be yes. Tracts of spectacular lands containing prehistoric ruins, trees older than our nation, buried seams of coal, and scenic vistas would be seen as "unproductive" and sold off to loggers, miners, and ranchers interested only in extractive uses.
The fact is that 26 percent of the United States land mass is federal property. Alaska, Idaho and Nevada have higher percentages of federal ownership than Utah, where about 63 percent of the state is federal land. Public land where we can walk, hunt, fish, camp, hike and recreate without permission is the birthright of every American citizen.
I own an undivided interest in all that land. But, hey, you don’t need to ask my permission to enjoy it. You own it equally.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.