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Federal transfers to Utah would shut public out


Just a Lobster Minion
NAXJA Member
PUBLIC LANDS: Federal transfers to Utah would shut public out — report

Scott Streater, E&E News reporter: E&E News: Monday, May 22, 2017

Utah has sold more than half the federal land it received upon becoming the nation's 45th state, according to a new report from a conservation group that found most of the sold areas are now closed to the public.
The Wilderness Society report, released today, found that 54 percent of the original 7.5 million acres of trust lands granted to Utah at statehood have been sold off to private entities, offering "a telling sign of what the state would do if it took over public land."
"This report demonstrates quite clearly that state land is not public land," said Brad Brooks, director of the Wilderness Society's public lands campaign and one of the report's lead authors.
The trust lands at issue are managed by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which is mandated to maximize income from these lands primarily for public schools but also for hospitals, state universities and other priorities.
The report, which is based on data gathered from SITLA, found that 4.1 million acres of trust land has been sold and "is now in private ownership, including irreplaceable archaeological sites, trophy big game habitat, national monument inholdings and scenic buffers overlooking spectacular national parks."
"Now the state wants more," according to the report, highlighting the Transfer of Public Lands Act that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed in 2012 demanding that the federal government transfer 31.2 million acres to the Beehive State.
A team of outside lawyers hired by the state has urged Herbert to consider filing a lawsuit to force the United States to cede ownership of federal lands to the state. The state signaled earlier this year that it would wait to see whether the Trump administration or a GOP-controlled Congress could resolve the issue (Greenwire, Feb. 27).
The Wilderness Society also singled out House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has "championed legislation intended to further the public land takeover effort in Utah and beyond," the report says.
"It's no secret that Utah's elected officials have led a sustained attack against national public lands," it says.
The federal government manages two-thirds of Utah, and Bishop and other members of the state's congressional delegation have complained for years that federal restrictions on the use of these lands have hurt the state and local economies.
Proponents of transferring federal lands to Utah have argued that doing so would allow the state to promote energy development that would boost property taxes and potentially raise billions of dollars for the state's financially strapped public school system.
Utah spends less per student than any state in the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
But the Wilderness Society, which has been a vocal critic of reducing the federal estate, says transferring public lands to Utah would ultimately harm outdoor recreation and tourism.
"Across the state, outdoor recreation drives $12 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 122,000 jobs, the vast majority of them dependent upon public lands," the report says.
"Yet, even as Utah has witnessed firsthand the value of national public lands through a robust tourism and outdoor recreation economy that thrives alongside the boom and bust cycles of the oil, gas and mining industries, history shows that the state has failed public interests miserably as a landlord," it adds.
The issue is not unique to Utah, according to the Wilderness Society.
The group released a similar report in March that found New Mexico had sold nearly 30 percent of its state trust lands since it joined the union in 1912 (Greenwire, March 21).
That report was heavily criticized by New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn in an op-ed published in last month's Albuquerque Journal.
Dunn dismissed the report as "fake news" and took issue with the suggestion that he supports a "land grab" of the federal estate. State trust lands, he wrote, are intended to provide funds for public institutions like schools and hospitals (E&E News PM, April 17).