We the people of Utah should control our state’s public lands

Wednesday , February 17, 2016 - 6:00 AM45 comments

Utah House of Representatives

I read with interest Kent Winward’s op-ed, “A Utah public lands bill won’t bring the federal government to its knees,” in the Feb. 14 Standard-Examiner.

While Windward has fun with his snarky comments and opinions about the Utah Legislature, the facts are even more interesting. And by the way, I’d invite Winward to “enter the arena,” as Teddy Roosevelt once said. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and carp; it’s a lot harder to actually be involved in representative government and make decisions with the facts in front of you.

As many know, I was raised on the Wasatch Front and have lived here my entire life. Our public lands are accessible and wonderful. I, like many of you, travel south to Utah’s red rock country or to points north for recreation. I do my thing and then come home. So what’s the problem?

I didn’t get the public lands issue until I began my service in the Legislature six years ago and listened to residents of southern Utah who try and co-exist with federal land managers. There’s a huge problem and many readers of this column will struggle to understand it and I don’t blame them. It will require a dramatic paradigm shift in thinking to get one’s arms around this and it won’t be easy.

Think about this: The Bureau of Land Management controls and manages more public land in Utah than the elected governor. Does that make any sense? The federal government doesn’t do that for states east of the 104th meridian west.

Here are a few findings from a thoughtful and detailed study completed in 2014 for the Utah Legislature titled, “Pathway to a Balanced Public Lands Policy,” prepared by the governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office:

“The motivations behind HB 148 are many. However, a common thread that influences them all is the fundamental reality that the federal management of the public lands has become significantly constrained by restrictive policies and regulations. As the title of former Governor Scott M. Matheson’s book asserts, the federal management of the public lands is “Out of Balance.” The congressional mandate to manage the lands according to the principles of ‘multiple-use and sustained yield’ has become mired in inefficiency, paralysis, and a predisposition to limited-used management. This immobilization has an effect upon State and local economies, private enterprise, recreational access, rural culture, and the health and sustenance of the very lands entrusted to federal stewardship.”

I’m no firebrand on this but am carefully attempting to wade through the facts and material available. These are some of my guiding principles:

1. Keep public lands open and available to the public.

2. Mixed-use land management.

3. More local authority in public land management.

4. Return of the timber industry.

5. Healthy forest management practices.

6. Rural road and responsible ATV trail expansion and maintenance.

Let me address the $14 million in potential legal fees Winward gleefully made fun of in his column. First of all, that’s a lot of money and no one is going to write a check tomorrow, or even the next day or maybe ever. Any decision to move forward with the lawsuit is in the hands of Utah’s attorney general and governor; it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to provide funding, so we’ll have to see. And it would be done piecemeal, anyway.

I’ve read the legal analysis by a team of lawyers hired to provide guidance. They make a compelling argument and base their assessment of success on sound legal theories. I’m not a lawyer, but I am the son of a lawyer and even I can process their analysis. They do say, “We further caution that the federal government will most likely vigorously oppose this effort, raising substantive and procedural hurdles to achieving such an outcome.” Believe me, 104 Utah legislators are weighing that counsel as is the attorney general as is our governor as should the people of Utah. It would be risky.

Let me take you now to the movie “Braveheart” and William Wallace’s speech to the Scottish nobles and army who, too, thought it way too risky to take on the English. Wallace (Mel Gibson) says something like, “Would you be willing to trade all this for one chance, just one chance …” Well, we know how that turned out.

I apologize for the hyperbole but will conclude with this: Until Utah can control and manage its public lands, we will never be able to adequately fund our public schools. And that’s a fact, Mr. Winward.

It may take years and will be difficult but what price should you and I put on freedom?

Steve Handy is a Layton Republican who represents District 16 in the Utah House. Twitter: @StephenHandyUT.

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