The federal government has far too much control of land in Utah and it is beyond time we make a change. More than 90 percent of federal-owned land is in the western U.S. Let us be clear, no one is arguing for a change of ownership when it comes to Utah’s National Parks, National Recreation Areas, declared wilderness and military installations. It is disingenuous to argue that we would ever fall short of protecting those lands. But those areas make up only a fraction of the public land that should be controlled by the state and put to good use for the people of Utah.
The federal government should return ownership and control of vast amounts of acreage in our state. If we left the national parks, national recreation areas, designated wilderness and military installations we would end up with only 15% of our state as federal land — a far more acceptable level. I would be open to various methods of ownership transfer from wholesale or something more methodical — like disposal of small acreages of land to the state and its subdivisions through acts like the Recreation and Public Purposes Act. I would also support exempting Utah from the Antiquities Act or expanding the acreage limits for the Recreation and Public Purposes Act. I would support amendments to the Recreation and Public Purposes Act that would make U.S. Forest Service lands eligible for acquisition and define affordable housing as an approved public purpose.
Public lands must be managed in a sustainable way and Utah needs a stronger voice in these decisions. The federal government has underfunded land management and failed to protect these lands from uncontrolled use, wildfire and invasive species. Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) is a disaster. In one year the Department of Interior paid $1.7 billion in 96 settlement agreements from sue & settle lawsuits to environmental groups ($17,708,333 average payout). The Dept. of the Interior also paid $550 million to 1,900 local governments in PILT funding ($289,473 average payout). At a minimum, Utah must be reimbursed under PILT and we must have a greater say in how federal lands are managed.
Additionally, COVID-19 has shown that our rural counties do not have the EMS and public health resources they need to support their burgeoning tourism economies. If the federal government and the public users of federal land are unwilling to fund the infrastructure required to maintain them, then we need to rethink the system.
The federal government does not have the capacity to own and properly manage so much of our land. It is beyond time to revisit the promises made in our enabling legislation, which said that much of the federal land within the state would eventually be sold and a portion of the proceeds would be set aside for the benefit of Utah’s public education system, just as this has been done in states across the country.
Utah is a public lands state. I hope it always will be. But not all of it has to be federal, and the environmental harm caused by decades of federal mismanagement suggests that we could do better.
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