Category Archives: In the News

Land takeover won’t help education

Heather Bennett of For Kids and Lands writes in the Deseret News

:When the Utah Legislature passed a law demanding the federal government turn over 30 million acres of public lands in Utah to the state, proponents claimed this ultimatum was needed to generate money for public education. Many educators, parents and students were skeptical. We organized “For Kids and Lands” and argued that seizing public lands would not solve our education funding challenges, nor benefit our children. Instead, the tilting-at-windmills scheme would most likely end up burdening taxpayers and damaging the irreplaceable landscapes that make our state so special.

The economic report released last week only confirms our position. It reveals a real risk that this course of action could cost the state and our children hundreds of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, many in state government are glossing over this peril, preferring to focus on limited scenarios that “could” work financially.

Although proponents have told us that taking control of public lands will help fund education, the report simply does not corroborate that promise.

In order for education to benefit, the financial rewards of managing public lands must exceed the costs of managing public lands, plus the previous allocation of mineral development revenue from public lands.

Under the current system, Utah gets about half the federal revenue share from such mineral development. As required by law, this money is dedicated to things like local transportation and infrastructure projects across the state. Those needs will still be here if Utah takes over federal lands.

So education only gets money if the state brings in enough revenue to cover these existing budget allocations and the new cost of land management (which we do not have to pay now).

With that in mind, the economic study is telling: during the first year of Utah’s presumed public lands takeover, not one of the scenarios it evaluated would result in anything beyond a rounding error for the education budget.

In 2022, the last year for which the study projects both the benefits and costs of land management, eight of the 10 scenarios would be insufficient to meet existing budget allocations combined with land costs. Only two of the 10 scenarios would provide some small level of additional funding that could possibly be allocated to education. Furthermore, these two scenarios require a number of unlikely assumptions to be realized.

Who would gamble our children’s inheritance knowing there is an 80 percent chance this plan will end in a net loss to the state rather than creating funds for schools?

Is this the future we want for our children?

I have yet to hear proponents explain how it would handle the most likely scenario: one in which Utah taxpayers get stuck footing a bill we cannot afford. I do not see how public education realistically stands to benefit.

We do not need to sacrifice our priceless land heritage for an ephemeral dollar. This study warns that such a tradeoff could result in real financial harm. It is time our elected officials stop wasting money on this poorly planned endeavor. By all means, let us seek funding solutions for our education needs. This is not a solution.

Report by sportsmen’s group faults state takeovers

Phil Taylor writes in Environment & Energy News (subscription required):

The transfer of federal lands to Western states could harm sportsmen and women by reducing access to quality wildlife habitat, according to a new report by the group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The report urges hunters and anglers to “push back against the special interests that want to sell your land” and lobby public officials to maintain the federal estate.

The national sportsmen’s group, based in Missoula, Mont., and led by a former Democratic activist, is fighting efforts by conservative politicians in Washington, D.C., and across the West for states to “take back” federal lands…

Federal lands are increasingly valuable to sportsmen as private hunting grounds like farms are converted to strip malls and subdivisions, the report said. Lack of access to quality habitat is the primary reason hunters and anglers quit their pastime, the report added….

The BHA report acknowledges the uncertainty of how federal lands would be managed by states, but it argues that states have a poor record of keeping their own lands open to recreation.

A chart shows that states have already sold a significant portion of the tens of millions of acres of trust lands they were granted at statehood. Those that remain are managed, by law, in large part to generate revenue, and hunting and angling is not always allowed or free as it is on federal lands.

If states took over federal tracts, it is unclear whether those who live out of state would remain stakeholders in deciding how they are managed.

“Today, the opponents of public land are well funded and better organized than ever,” the BHA report said. “Hunters and anglers must stand up together to defend our rights.”

Click here to read the full report (opens in PDF).

Editorial: Make a deal instead of suing over public lands

The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board writes:

A new analysis from the University of Utah Law School’s Wallace Stegner Center affirms what so many others have said about the state’s effort to sue the federal government to take over its federal lands: “Utah’s claims … are doomed to failure.”

That by itself is enough reason to abandon the fight, but the two authors take it a step further. “This may be the larger lesson — that the transfer movement does more harm than good to the federal-state relationship needed for effective land management.”

Even Anthony Rampton, the assistant attorney general who is the state’s legal expert on suing for land, told state legislators in June that it would be a “tough case,” tough enough that Rampton says the state should keep negotiations with the feds open, negotiations like Rep. Rob Bishop’s effort to settle multiple land disputes in eastern Utah in one bill….

Utah’s case is akin to flying through the eye of a needle. For the state to succeed, the courts have to:

1) Buy the argument that the “enabling act” that allowed Utah to become a state is ambiguous in that it says in one place that Utah has relinquished rights and in another place that the federal government will sell land and give a share of the proceeds to the state.

2) Choose to give the state the benefit of that ambiguity and take the second statement as the right interpretation, and

3) Allow that argument, and the enabling act itself, to take precedent over the Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, That is the “property clause” that gives the federal government full authority to do as it sees fit with its property, and the courts have not flinched from that authority.

The long odds haven’t stopped HB148’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, from whipping up support among Utah’s rural county commissions. Politically, that may be a good strategy for keeping the effort alive. Those rural commissions are both long on complaints about federal land management and short on the legal expertise needed to understand just how unlikely a legal victory is.

That’s where the Stegner Center’s warning is spot-on. If Rep. Bishop fails in his effort to settle the land disputes the right way — through negotiated legislation involving all stakeholders — it likely will be because he couldn’t hold the county commissioners, many of whom have bought Rep. Ivory’s tenuous legal claims.

If the Bishop process fails, a real opportunity will be lost in pursuit of a fake one.

Legal scholars challenge underpinnings of Utah’s public lands campaign

Brian Maffly writes in the Salt Lake Tribune:

University of Utah legal scholars released a white paper Wednesday concluding the state has no legal basis
to demand the federal government turn over title to public lands.

Some state lawmakers have clamored for the state to sue after passing a law in 2012 demanding the feds give the state 30 million acres by Dec. 31.

Suing would not only be a waste of money, but also set back efforts to resolve conflicts over public land management, according to John Ruple, a research fellow with the U. law school’s Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment.

“We recognize there are legitimate questions about how federal lands are managed and there is room for disagreement, but demanding the federal government give those lands to the state is legally untenable,” said Ruple, who co-wrote the paper with the center’s director, law professor Robert Keiter.

Amy Joi O’Donoghue also reports for the Deseret News:

Ruple said the federal government’s right to retain ownership is well established, and critics welcomed the paper’s conclusions.

“This paper confirms that Utah’s attempt to seize public lands is illegal and a massive waste of taxpayer resources,” remarked David Garbett, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The state should give up its misguided efforts to deprive Americans of our shared national heritage of public lands.”

Stegner Center Releases Legal Analysis of Utah’s Efforts to Control Federal Public Lands

The Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources & the Environment at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law today released a White Paper titled “A Legal Analysis of the Transfer of Public Lands Movement.” The White Paper discusses Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, or TPLA, which demands that the federal government transfer title to 30 million acres of federal public lands within Utah to the State. As the White Paper notes, the TPLA has inspired eight other states to pass legislation seeking to control federal lands.

The White Paper concludes that Utah has no legal right to the land it demands, and the federal government has the constitutional authority to retain lands in federal ownership. The federal government gave Western states over 70 million acres of public land, and newly admitted states explicitly disclaimed all rights to additional land. This legal disclaimer cannot be read to create a federal duty to dispose of additional federal land, and guarantees of equal political rights for each state cannot be converted into a promise of equal land ownership. Furthermore, while federal legislation authorizing creation of the Western states guarantees those states a share of the proceeds resulting from federal land sales, that guarantee does not create a legal obligation to sell off public lands.

University Distinguished Professor Bob Keiter, Director of the Stegner Center, and John Ruple, Stegner Center Fellow and Research Associate, authored the White Paper. According to the authors, “With two-thirds of the land in Utah under federal control, questions of how public lands are managed impact every Utahn and every American. While we recognize that some are dissatisfied with the state of federal land management, the legally flawed TPLA is the wrong tool to address those concerns. Unfortunately, misplaced efforts like the TPLA get in the way of collaborative efforts, and in so doing, aggravate tensions rather than foster solutions.”

The white paper can be downloaded here.

Wildfires could bankrupt states if they acquired federal tracts — report

Phil Taylor writes in Environment and Energy News (subscription required):

Western states are ill-equipped to take ownership of federal lands because of the spiraling cost of fighting wildfires on national forests, according to a new report from a Denver-based conservation group.

The report by the Center for Western Priorities found that in a handful of Western states in 2011 and 2012, the Forest Service spent more to quell wildfires than what the states spent on their entire law enforcement budgets….

The report comes as conservative state lawmakers in the West pursue legislation to acquire federal lands or study the pros and cons of doing so. Conservationists, sportsmen’s groups and Democrats have generally resisted the idea, saying the lands should remain under federal ownership and managed on behalf of all Americans.

Since 2001, the federal government has spent an average of $3.1 billion annually on wildfires, the CWP report said, citing a study by a former researcher for the Congressional Research Service….

“Calling on states to seize public lands may make for great political theater, but it makes for horrible policy,” said a statement today by Greg Zimmerman, the Center for Western Priorities’ policy director.

“If public lands are transferred, states would have to assume the firefighting responsibilities,” he added. “The money to pay for this critical service will have to come from somewhere. One bad fire season would risk a state’s financial stability.”

The costs of wildfires have risen dramatically over the past decades as a result of an accumulation of trees and underbrush, persistent drought, and the expansion of homes in the wildland-urban interface.

Click here to read the full report (opens in PDF).

Utah’s federal land, roads fights a ‘wild goose chase’?

Brian Maffly writes in the Salt Lake Tribune:

State leaders’ quest to gain title to federal land and thousands of dirt tracks and roads amounts to “a wild goose chase” that squanders taxpayer money and could ultimately degrade the state’s natural beauty, education advocates told a legislative committee last week.

“We don’t believe these initiatives will solve our education funding issues. We fear they will distract our leaders from seeking realistic and lasting solutions. We are chasing after an imaginary unicorn,” said Heather Bennett, a Salt Lake City school board member.

Should the state succeed in winning title to 30 million acres and 12,400 routes, the land could lose the scenic values that “make Utah a fabulous place for family recreation and renewal,” she said.

The comments by Bennett, a co-founder of the new campaign called For Kids and Lands, were a blunt challenge to the Legislature’s Natural Resources Interim Committee, whose leadership endorses lawsuits against the federal government in a bid to enable greater resource development on public lands.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, used the occasion to blast conservation groups that advocate greater landscape protection.

“You are wrong on this issue. These groups have an agenda and feed you misinformation. They don’t care about your kids. I do,” said Noel, among the state’s leading critics of federal land management.

Backers of the state push to take title to federal land say the move is necessary to secure education funding for Utah, which ranks dead-last in per-pupil spending. Getting the state on par with the national average would take $2.6 billion.

That would require doubling the state income tax, which would wreck the economy, said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who authored the 2012 legislation demanding the land transfer.

The state has done a superior job generating revenue off state lands, backers say as proof that Utah is better suited to manage land than federal authorities.

“This is certainly not a wild goose chase. Funding education through our lands is something we can do,” said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. “I don’t know how we can generate revenue from state lands if we can’t access them.”

Protest Held Over A Fight Between Utah, Federal Government

KUTV reports:

KUTV) A group of about 50 activists, mostly teachers and students, came to Liberty Park Wednesday to say Utah should not fight the federal government when it comes to land.

Governor Gary Herbert and lawmakers say Utah suffers because two-thirds of all the land in the state is owned by the federal government, and they say Utah should fight for its land. Also, Utah is suing for title to 35,000 miles of dirt roads in Utah.

Legislators say more Utah control would mean more revenue from drilling and other development for Utah schools.

But teachers note there would be costs, too.

“The federal government spent $50 million in 2012 on fire suppression alone,” educator and activist Heather Bennett said.

They said the governor and lawmakers should back off.