About the Issue

The initiatives we are concerned about:

Utah Governor Herbert is promoting two initiatives that claim state ownership over federal lands in Utah:

  • The Transfer of Public Lands Act (HB 148): Passed by the Utah legislature last year, this act demands that the U.S. Government transfer title to 30 million acres of federal land located in the state of Utah to the state by the end of 2013. These federal lands include all the National Forests, all the lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), all the National Wildlife Refuges and even one unit of the National Park System (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area).
  • 22 lawsuits asserting highway rights-of-way for over 35,000 miles of dirt routes that crisscross federal lands in Utah.

Why we believe these initiatives could harm our kids and lands:

These initiatives will cost millions of taxpayer dollars, diverting scarce funds that could otherwise be invested in education.

First of all, the litigation-related cost of these initiatives could be astronomical – and consume taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be spent on education. The state’s own office of legislative counsel has stated that the Transfer of Public Lands Act has a “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.” This means that the act will trigger a legal battle that will be both costly to taxpayers and unlikely to succeed.

Even more troubling, the costs of litigating the 22 highway rights-of-way lawsuits are estimated to be in the untold millions. San Juan County, for example, spent over $1 million to litigate a single nine-mile-long route in a streambed in Canyonlands National Park. (The county lost the lawsuit.) The 22 lawsuits filed by the state of Utah involve 35,000 miles of routes! Furthermore, the need to spend taxpayer dollars in an effort to establish title to these routes is highly questionable. The vast majority — eldom-driven tracks — peter out in the middle of nowhere and don’t serve the traveling needs of the general public. In contrast, the right to drive and maintain those dirt roads that do serve legitimate transportation needs is generally uncontested.

Second, if the state somehow did acquire federal lands, the available information suggests that management costs would likely exceed revenues produced. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to manage public lands in Utah, including the unpredictable cost of fighting fires ($50 million in 2012). If the state acquired federal lands, it would be saddled with these costs.

Last year Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer (a staunch advocate for state sovereignty) vetoed a land transfer bill in her state. She pointed to the management costs, the likely unconstitutionality of the bill and the uncertainty it would create for parties holding existing leases on federal lands. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote “that’s a much more logical view than the pipe dream held by Utah lawmakers, that the seizure of public lands would be a fiscal bonanza for the state.”

These initiatives will not solve our education funding challenge as proponents claim.

Proponents of the Transfer of Public Lands Act insist that transferring federal lands to the state would produce additional money for public education. We’ve shown above why the state is likely to lose rather than generate money by pursuing this land transfer.

Even if the state succeeded in acquiring federal lands, and even if Utah generated increased revenues from those lands, citizens have no guarantee that the state legislature would divert those funds toward education. The Transfer of Public Lands Act does not require that those funds go to education.

Land transfer proponents contend that the existence of substantial federal lands in our state prevents the state from adequately funding our schools by over-limiting our tax base. But there is no correlation nationwide between a state’s per pupil funding and the amount of non-federal land within its borders. More than half the states have less non-federal land per person than Utah, but manage to provide more per pupil funding for education. For example, Rhode Island has roughly 1/10th the amount of non-federal land per person as Utah yet manages to more than double Utah’s per pupil funding.

Read more about public lands and school funding (opens in PDF).

These initiatives will harm the public lands that make Utah special.

Our families cherish Utah’s spectacular mountain and desert landscapes as places of recreation and renewal. Here we go to relax, walk, bike, camp, fish, hunt or ski with our children. We want our children to inherit these places unspoiled.

Our federal public lands are also vital to our state’s tourism and outdoor recreation economies. The continued success of Utah’s tourism and outdoor recreation economies depends on the protection of scenic and recreational values of these lands.

Transferring federal lands to the state of Utah, however, would remove or nullify many provisions and processes essential to protecting the special scenic, recreational and environmental values of these lands. For example, lands within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area would no longer be subject to the protections provided by their congressional designations. Similarly, federal (BLM) lands that have been determined to have wilderness values would lose their interim protection. And we would lose the opportunity to designate additional deserving federal lands in Utah as national parks, monuments or wilderness areas because these lands would no longer be federally-owned!

Existing federal requirements for thoughtful review of environmental impacts – as well as requirements for opportunities for public input – would no longer apply to development activities proposed on lands transferred to the state. The values that make our public lands so special could easily be sacrificed without the public having a chance to comment!

All of this is particularly troublesome because proponents of the Land Transfer Act have openly promoted it as a way to “open up” public lands to drilling and mining or other forms of development or even to sell these lands off to private individuals. Proponents also talk about how state control will allow them to avoid environmental impact review and public comment processes.

The state of Utah is seeking  title to more than 35,000 miles of dirt routes. Click the map to enlarge.

The state of Utah is seeking title to more than 35,000 miles of dirt routes. Click the map to enlarge.

The special values of our public lands would also be seriously harmed if the state acquires title to the 35,000 miles of dirt routes identified in 22 lawsuits filed in 2012. A map of these routes looks like someone spilled spaghetti over Utah’s federal lands. The routes crisscross some of Utah’s most cherished landscapes, including many of our national parks, designated wilderness areas, and wild lands proposed for wilderness designation. Many of these routes are nothing more than dry stream beds, old vehicle tracks, cow paths, and seismic lines now largely unnoticeable. But if the state prevails in its claims, it would gain title to 66-foot-wide rights-of-way that could allow these routes to be widened, paved, and turned into highways. Widespread destructive impacts to wildlife habitat, irreplaceable archeological sites and unspoiled scenery inevitably follow.

Finally, the state’s history of poor funding for its own state parks – those lands specifically set aside for scenic and recreational purposes – raises serious questions about the state’s commitment and capability to manage lands for their scenic and recreational values. Over the last few years, the state cut funding for state parks in half and eliminated a huge number of park managers.

Sign on to the For Kids and Lands position statement

We believe we set a poor example for our children by pursuing the courses of action discussed above. Instead, we call on our elected leaders to take another path: demonstrate long-term planning for public education, environmental stewardship, and priorities that honor future generations. Please join this call by signing on to the For Kids and Lands position statement.

Add Your Name to Our Position Statement

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