Category Archives: Opinion Pieces

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.

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.

Shutdown exposed folly of Utah’s federal-land grabbers

Black Diamond co-founder and CEO Peter Metcalf writes in the Salt Lake Tribune:

If we learn any lesson from this debacle of a government shutdown, I hope it’s that national parks and other public lands are of greater daily benefit to Utahns than the rhetoric of the state Legislature’s sagebrush rebels and our own members of Congress would ever acknowledge.

At Black Diamond, we’ve long realized the substantial positive impact that national parks and other federally protected public lands have on our company and others like us. As Utah Gov. Gary Herbert finally admitted, the national parks are actually “the backbone of many rural economies.”

When the shutdown hit national parks, several Utah counties went so far as to declare a state of emergency, despite the fact that many of these county officials never miss an opportunity to criticize the parks when they’re open.

That’s because it became painfully clear even to them that the public lands we have in Utah are one of the best things we have going — in fact, it’s why I located my company here in the first place, and I know many Utah small businesses who would say the same.

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Utah renounced claims to lands at statehood

Charles F. Trentelman in the May 6, 2013 Standard-Examiner:

Regarding the May 5 guest commentary by Steve Handy, “Columnist wrong on public lands issue,” Steve refers once again, to the “promise” from the federal government to turn over lands to Utah.

Please show us that “promise” in print, somewhere, anywhere. When, as a reporter, I was interviewing the lawmakers who wrote the bills calling for the return of those lands to Utah, I asked them to show me that promise. They could not. I asked the governor to. He could not. Perhaps Steve Handy can? A signed contract would be best.

This column is a poor substitute. Referring to language that he says “implies” that the state “anticipates” ownership is not a promise. Saying that the feds turned over lands in other states, so that means it promised to turn them over in Utah, is not a promise.

Steve says lawyers say he’s got a good argument. Lawyers are paid to say you have a good argument, Steve. That doesn’t mean you are right. The Legislature’s lawyers have said the bills have severe Constitutional issues.

The Utah Constitution is clear: On statehood, Utah renounced all claims to those lands. That language leaves it up to the feds to give, or not give, back. It has not.

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Utah taxpayers will pay for land deal

Paul Van Dam, former Utah attorney general, in the May 3, 2013 Spectrum:

There ought to be a law that makes legislators personally liable for bills passed that their own legal counsel advised are unconstitutional.

The Utah Legislature approved $3 million to sue the federal government for federal land and recently approved another $450,000 to study how Utah might manage an additional 30 million acres. Utah’s “last in nation” funded school children — a status that should be an embarrassment and inexcusable to Utahns — is the rationale. We need more than an expensive goose chase to solve our state’s education problem. Investigating why we’re last in funding seems more reasonable. This is really another “revolt against the federal government.”

Utah legislator Ken Ivory sponsors the “American Land Council” — an effort to get federal land. Let’s be clear: Utah is not “taking land back.” It’s never been Utah’s but was gained as a result of the Mexican American War. Latter-day Saint pioneers trekked west and settled on federal lands. Utah “forever disclaimed all right and title to the land in Utah” under terms of Utah’s 1894 Enabling Act, Section 3, when Utah gained statehood. Section 12, which specifically gave Utah more than 1 million acres again, stated: “The said State of Utah shall not be entitled to any further or other grants of land for any purpose than as expressly provided in the Act.”

A sentence in the act that states that the United States will extinguish title is relied on by proponents to mean that the federal government has to pass title to Utah land. The language quoted refers specifically to American Indian lands and says “that until title thereto shall have been extinguished by the U.S., the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the U.S.” Congress has absolute power to convey lands.

How would Utah even be able to manage additional lands? They can barely support the state park system. Utah runs a tight budget — hence “best managed state” accolades. Federal lands in Utah are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service — agencies with hundreds of employees and about $250 million in expenditures. The Enabling Act requires Utah to give the federal government 95 percent of proceeds from federal land transferred and subsequently sold. So resource extraction seems to be the only real option. Will our lands be overrun with extraction activities and roads spider-webbing our landscape to manage those activities? Utah gives very favorable tax treatment to resource extraction companies. In 2011, Utah had the lowest effective tax rate on oil and natural gas of any western energy-producing state and no severance tax on our abundant coal.

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Utah’s land grab ripoff

Paul Van Dam in the April 6, 2013 Salt Lake Tribune:

As a former prosecutor, I’d say Utah taxpayers have just been scammed, and a lot of money is about to be wasted.

In its general session, the Legislature approved $3 million to sue the federal government for federal land. Legislators added another $450,000 to study how Utah might manage an additional 30 million acres. Their effort and expense are supposedly to benefit our “last in nation” funding for school children, a status that should be an embarrassment and inexcusable to Utah residents.

We tout our children as our future. Perhaps the future isn’t very promising for our children. A solution is needed but an expensive goose chase is not the answer. Investigating why we’re last in funding seems more reasonable.

The American Land Council — sponsored by state Rep. Ken Ivory — spouts legal justifications for going after federal land. But let’s be clear: Utah is not “taking land back,” as Ivory would have it. It has never been Utah’s. The federal government got it in a treaty after the Mexican American War. Mormon pioneers trekked west and settled on federal lands. When Utah petitioned for statehood and agreed to the terms of Utah’s 1894 Enabling Act, in which the state “forever disclaimed all right and title to the land in Utah.”

Early Utahns accepted this deal with the disclaimer clearly stated twice in the Enabling Act, in Section 3 and again in Section 12. The latter specifically gave Utah over a million acres, and then again stated, “The said State of Utah shall not be entitled to any further or other grants of land for any purpose than as expressly provided in the Act.”

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Utah’s real ‘land grab’

Ty Markham in the March 23, 2013 Salt Lake Tribune:

With a residence and business in southern Utah, I have a deep connection to our public lands, and not only because they serve as the anchor for my business and livelihood. The redrock deserts, canyons, towering cliffs and aspen-layered mountains are my soul’s way to transcend the weariness of everyday life.

So I’m not surprised that thousands of Utahns agree that our public lands are a valuable resource. Recent polling by Colorado College’s “State of the Rockies” project shows vast majorities support protection of our public lands. In Utah, 96 percent agree that public lands are essential to the state’s economy. When given the most up-to-date information on proposals to sell off public lands, 67 percent of Utahns are opposed.

These numbers make me wonder why many of our elected officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, advocate the transfer to state ownership of up to 30 million acres of federally owned land in Utah. We’ve all heard proponents say, “Utah can do a better job of managing those lands,” or “It will benefit our kids through more funding for public education.”

But, frankly, if you believe those arguments I have some ocean front property in Utah to sell you.

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Finding the proper balance between state, federal land interests

Vince Rampton in the August 12, 2012 Deseret News:

In March, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the Transfer of Public Lands Act, setting up a midnight showdown with the federal government. By midnight on Dec. 31, 2013, the act states, the United States must convey, free of charge, millions of acres of land held in federal ownership for generations.

If the federal government refuses, litigation is authorized, and Utah faces the United States of America in court. And if the federal government capitulates, the act offers no plan for state management of the lands, only creation of a study council.

The current government contends that this act is the silver bullet that will save Utah’s abysmal education funding. In reality, it is simply an end-run around the facts: Utah’s public education is underfunded because hundreds of millions in school dollars are annually diverted to other projects, primarily transportation and roads.

The press touted the act as another “Sagebrush Rebellion.” In fact, it is legally and historically indefensible and will not initiate positive change or provide needed fiscal relief for our public schools.

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Feds don’t owe Utah

Dennis Willis in the November 3, 2012 Salt Lake Tribune:

In attempting to acquire federal lands within its borders, the State of Utah reneges on an agreement made in the earliest days of the Republic.

In 1787, the 13 states had two problems — Revolutionary War debts and conflicting claims to western lands. Both Maryland and Virginia had land claims extending to the Pacific Ocean, including what is now Utah. A commission was formed; compromise was reached: All war debt shifted to the federal government.

In exchange, each state would cede Western land claims to the central government…. When Utah became a state it ceded territorial claims to the federal government, just as Virginia and Maryland had done 111 years earlier.

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Utah land grab

Stephen Trimble in the March 9, 2012 Salt Lake Tribune:

Is land a commodity, just another possession to generate income? Or is land inseparable from our roles as thoughtful and ethical beings forever woven into the web of living things and the physical world that sustains us?

Your answers to these questions predict your attitude toward Utah legislators’ request to take over 30 million acres of public lands. Your answers also underlie our anguished wrangle over the soul of the West.

I’ll admit that I have always believed in public lands as our permanent common ground. I use the word “community” more than I use the word “property,” the word “conservation” more than “commerce,” the word “planning” more than “profit.”

Utah legislators use different language. In many years, their biggest campaign contributions come from the Utah Association of Realtors. Our governor is the former president of that association. Many members are or have been real estate developers.

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