- 2015 Session
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Public Lands: What’s this debate about, again?
Is all of the land in Utah Utah’s land?
Is all of the land in Utah Utah’s land? The question seems silly but the truth is only a part of the land in Utah is actually Utah’s land. Roughly 67% of Utah’s land is managed by the federal government. In 2012, the Utah State Legislature approved the “Transfer of Public Lands Act”. This bill mandated the transfer of lands under federal control to the state of Utah.
Supporters of the transfer raise three main arguments. First, Utah’s public lands contain valuable natural resources that go unutilized. The transfer of public lands could open these lands to economic development and, as a result, boost our economy. In addition, more economic growth means more tax revenue that can be spent on things like Education.
Second, the transfer of public lands would give local governments a stable revenue source. In Utah, some of our counties contain as much 90% Federal Land. Our counties’ primary form of revenue is property tax. The counties cannot assess property tax on federal land because it is unconstitutional for a state entity to tax a federal entity. The counties, however, still provide costly services for these lands in the form of police efforts, fire-fighting, and search and rescue. The federal government has programs that are designed to reimburse counties for such services but the appropriation of these funds has been inconsistent, partially funded, and the future availability of these funds is uncertain. The transfer of public lands to the state would promote self-sufficiency by reducing the dependence on an uncertain revenue source.
Third, the state of Utah should control the land that falls inside its sovereign territory. As with other states in the west, the agreement with the federal government was that all lands controlled by the federal government at the time of statehood would be held in trust and eventually turned over to the state. The federal government should keep its promise. The lands of our state should be managed by the people of our state, not federal bureaucrats.
There are definitely two sides to this story, however. Opponents of the transfer also offer three major reason to oppose the transfer of public lands to the state of Utah. First, the economic development of public lands will lead to the destruction of pristine desert scenery. Once the desert is destroyed, it’s destroyed for good. We can’t get it back. Economic development could potentially ruin public lands for all kinds of recreational users including hunters and fisherman as well as disrupt the habitats of desert plants and animals.
Second, the transfer is Illegal. According to Utah’s ‘Enabling Act’–the original agreement signed by Utah and the Federal government at the time of statehood– Utah agreed to forever disavow any claim of ownership to the lands under Federal control. By this line of reasoning, Utah has no right to unilaterally reclaim any public lands.
Third, the effort to acquire public lands is expensive and futile. The state has pledged millions to the fight to gain control of the public lands. Furthermore, because of its questionable legality, these efforts are unlikely to succeed. Why throw money at a lost cause? In addition, many federal employees are also Utahans with families. If the lands are transferred to the state, these Utahans stand to lose their jobs.
* Photo here.