Podcast: Weber State professor explains the basics of Utah's public lands

Wednesday , March 21, 2018 - 5:00 AM

Lots of questions and misunderstandings are swirling about Utah’s federal public lands, especially with the recent downsizing of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

> Why is Bears Ears National Monument causing controversy?

Podcasters Benjamin Zack and Leia Larsen tapped Sara Dant for a brief course in public land basics. Dant is a professor of history and Chair of History at Weber State University. She specializes in environment and Western history. Last year she published a book, “Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West.” 

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An excerpt of the conversation is included below, which has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more, including why Utah has such a large swath of federal land, listen to the entire conversation by subscribing to “Out Standing in a Field” wherever you get your podcasts. Audio from the interview is also included in the embedded audio player below.

LARSEN: What were Utahns’ early attitudes about public lands, around the time of statehood?

DANT: At the time of statehood, I think people didn’t give a huge amount of consideration to public lands. They didn’t see them as somehow working against what they wanted to do. There was plenty of room to go in and find a farm. In fact, attitudes about the federal government, even at turn of 20th Century, were very favorable and very positive. Even through the 1960s and 1970s, people had a general sense the federal government was the best steward of the land.

LARSEN: What’s the difference between the BLM and U.S. Forest Service?

DANT: There are four federal land management agencies. The one everybody knows about is the National Park Service. Then we have the Bureau of Land Management, we have the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For the most part, they have different designations, but sometimes they overlap.

The U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905 by Theodore Roosevelt because we decided we need to set aside our forest. We needed to come up with this idea of conservation. We wanted to conserve the resource for future use. Importantly, it’s housed in the Department of Agriculture, which gives you a sense of what that conservation messages was — we saw trees as a crop. So the forest is primarily the management agency for the nation’s forests.

The Bureau of Land Management was created in 1946 as a merger of the General Land Office — the major distribution channel for the Homestead Act — and the Taylor Grazing Service, which tried to manage ranch and rangelands. The BLM tends to manage more rangeland and grassland holdings of the federal government. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have trees. It also does a lot of the mineral rights that go with these lands.

LARSEN: If you look at a map of western Box Elder County, it’s a checkerboard of BLM land and private land. Why is that?

DANT: There’s always checker-boarding, there will always be places where people managed to privatize lands and what got left over got folded into a forest, or BLM land or even in the national parks. Hiking the Kaibab Trail, You can see somebody’s house in the Grand Canyon. Our federal land management agencies do their best to try to make the map more solidly colored, but people also sometimes like those inholdings. They want to keep them in their families and they do.

LARSEN: What’s the difference between state lands and federal public lands?

DANT: Mostly it’s about who the management agency is. When a state owns lands, it owns lands in interest of the people of the state. Public lands are owned by the federal government, which means they’re owned by every single American. So even if you don’t live in Box Elder County, if you live in Cleveland, that BLM land is your land, too.

Federal agencies have to manage lands for the greater good. State lands get managed for more local consideration.

LARSEN: What’s the difference between a national monument and a national park?

DANT: Typically it’s about what you can and can’t do in a particular area. National parks typically are far more restrictive about what kinds of uses are allowed. National monuments, typically, the uses that were historically allowed are continued, sometimes with restrictions.

The primary purpose of a national monument is to protect historic sites or sites with scientific value. To designate a national park takes an act of Congress. That can be a cumbersome process. The idea with the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows for national monuments, was to create an opportunity to set aside those sites more efficiently, to give the president of the United States the ability to do that unilaterally. In fact, many of our national parks started out as national monuments.

LARSEN: Can the federal government take private or state lands and make them federal?

DANT: No, with an asterisk. If the federal government wants to put a highway through somewhere and it needs to take land to make the highway go the route it needs to go, it can do that. Can the federal government come in and declare your private property a national park? It cannot. It can engulf your property in a national park, but it has to allow you to maintain your private property possession and it has to allow you access to your property.

LARSEN: Can the federal government sell off U.S. Forest Service land or BLM land?

DANT: It can. Typically what the government does, though, is a land trade. For example, in Grand Staircase, there was a lot of controversy when that monument was declared. What they did was a land swap of state lands for federal lands elsewhere — to clear that checkerboard a little bit. The state actually made out pretty well.

LARSEN: What are some of the most common misconceptions you hear about public lands?

DANT: Two things. First, that it’s the land of no use — “as soon as it’s a public land, you can’t do anything on it.” That’s not true, not even in wilderness areas. A lot of those wilderness areas have been designated with exceptions. Many still have grazing rights. Some have an air landing strip because it was grandfathered in.

The other thing a lot of people think is — with Bears Ears National Monument, for example — a lot people said, “They just took 1.3 million acres of land away from the state and locked it up as federal lands.” That’s wrong. All the land within the Bears Ears National Monument was federal land, it was forest service and BLM land. The management plans allowed for mining, grazing, harvesting timber, off-road recreational vehicle use. Those uses were left in place. But somehow, that’s not what people thought happened. They thought private land suddenly got grabbed by the federal government.

LARSEN: When President Donald Trump shrunk the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, those lands still remained federal lands, correct? He didn’t take those lands away from the public, he just changed the protection?

DANT: Yes, although technically nothing has happened yet. He made that recommendation and immediately everything ended up in the courts. The reason those monuments were declared is because there are significant historical artifacts and landmarks within those boundaries. Without national monument protection and the restrictions that are possible in a monument, it’s not possible to come up with a management plan that protects them more explicitly and effectively. The biggest problem is until it gets resolved in the courts, there will be no management plan. Agencies aren’t sure what to do.

Right now it’s kind of a chaotic free-for-all. The other problem is, because it got designated, it’s now on the radar. There’s really great stuff here. Unfortunately, the unscrupulous of the world say, “Let’s go loot.” There’s a very viable antiquities market, people willing to pay for this stuff.

ZACK: Public lands have become a lot more divisive in Utah, along with general mistrust of the federal government. Do you see that changing anytime soon?

DANT: I think the only way for things to change is for people to talk. What I find when I actually talk to people is what unites us is so much greater than divides us. 

ZACK: Sometimes you hear questions from folks along the lines of, “Well, it’s public land, it’s my land. Why can’t I do what I want? Why can’t I cut down that tree or camp longer than 14 days?” What’s the answer?

DANT: Because it’s not just your land. It’s everybody’s land. The idea behind public lands is they have to be managed so they can continue to be used. If you cut down the tree or take an artifact, I don’t get to see it. If you set up your motorhome for three months, I can’t go there and that’s not fair. You have to figure out the best way to distribute the experience.

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