Utah’s public lands should stay public

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The federal government owns 63.9 percent of all land in the state of Utah. This massive swathe of public land encompasses some of the state’s most diverse and dazzling lanvdscapes. The Wasatch Range, whose snow-capped peaks scatter the rays of the rising sun, and cultivate pastel-colored, sunrise spectaculars in my back yard each morning, is an example of how close to home much of Utah’s breathtaking public lands reside. Most of the western portion of Utah is nestled in the vast, capricious, oasis dotted Great Basin desert – the largest desert in the country – much of which is publicly owned. In the southern section of our state one can witness prodigious red-rock formations, whose sediments, which oscillate between rosy-red, bronze and heavenly white hues, bear the signature of Utah’s unique geological history. Personally, I am content to preserve the public status of our state’s scenic landscapes, but many of Utah’s elected officials would argue that private ownership of these lands would better serve the public interest.

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HB 148, also known as The Transfer of Public Lands Act, was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012. The act promised that, if the federal government did not forfeit ownership of 20-30 million acres of public lands in Utah (excluding national parks, monuments and wilderness reserves) by the end of 2014, the state would sue. Well, 2014 has come and gone and there are no signs of an imminent lawsuit. State Rep. Ken Ivory, (R-West Jordan), one of HB 148’s biggest proponents, has said that the deadline was more of a goal than a hard line in the sand. Ivory expressed enthusiasm at how far the privatization movement has come since 2012, pointing to six other states that have either enacted or considered similar resolutions.

The idea of ejecting the federal government off of “state land” is alluring to many rustically romantic Utahns. Proponents of HB 148 have rallied small pockets of support by infusing their arguments with emotionally appealing prose denouncing the ineffectiveness and inequity of the federal government. Ivory and others have argued that Utah is much better equipped to manage its lands than are federal bureaucracies. While framing the conversation in the context of federal ineptitude tends to provoke the egos of some self-assured Westerners, it is misleading.

In 2013 alone, the federal government spent $3.5 billion fighting wildfires in the West. When you tack on the price of law enforcement, maintaining clean water supplies and facilitating access to outdoor recreation, the costs of managing public land quickly outstrip most state budgets. Even so, Ivory had the audacity to assert that “getting access to [public] lands is the only major way to grow our economy and secure funding for our schools.” This statement essentially encapsulates the main argument for privatizing public lands: money.

If the state’s plan to regain control of public lands comes to fruition, income would be generated by state property taxes on newly privatized lands. So what is Utah’s superior, private land management plan, anyway? Simply put: drill baby, drill! Utah would sell its abundance of awe-inspiring natural lands to oil, gas and timber developers, who would desecrate our state’s mountainsides, inject toxic chemical cocktails into our desert soil and slash our enduring forests.

HB 148 is a thinly veiled, would-be mechanism for wrestling tens of millions of acres of prodigious, unsoiled public land from the people who love and cherish it the most. It is a flailing attempt by a slowly-starving, antiquated industry, which is based on natural resource exploitation and is thus inherently unsustainable, to exhaust the true wealth of our state for a few quick bucks. It also ignores the massive, ever-growing profits generated by tourism and outdoor recreation in Utah. Fortunately, Utah is moving towards an economy that is centered on exploring rather than exploiting the natural world, and the people here hold their public lands too dear to let them go for the sake of misguided ideology or to simply pad the pockets of indifferent investors. Ivory and his consortium of green-eyed conservatives had better recognize and cede to the will of their real constituents, else I predict they will be searching for new positions from which to peddle their petty privatization appeals.

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