Control of public lands within Utah

Feb 24 2012 - 4:14pm


Rep. Brad Dee
Rep. Brad Dee

The Legislature is often unfairly labeled as picking fights with the federal government on public lands issues. I think this is an unfair characterization of the role the states play on this issue, and others, where we are a necessary part of the check and balance to federal power. This session, a package of bills has been proposed (HJR3, HB148, HCR1, and HB19) that seeks to address the issue of public lands inside Utah that are owned and managed by the federal government.

In past columns, I have written about the significant financial disadvantage Utah faces because nearly 70 percent of our total land mass is held by the federal government and is unavailable for development.

This issue of the management and financial hardship imposed by significant federal land ownership is compounded by one of the overarching themes this session -- concern about public education funding. Many people have identified the projected budget surplus as a means of addressing student population growth in education. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't address the sustainability of funding and expanding our education investment over the long-term. While Utahns are incredibly supportive of increased public education funding, they are equally resistant to tax increases. The question is, how do we broaden our base so we can lower the tax rate?

The basis for the package lies in a legal theory dating back to Utah's territorial days and subsequent admission to the union. To quickly summarize the theory, at the time of Utah's statehood and enabling act, the federal government promised to deliver to Utah all federal lands within its borders, as was the done historically in all states east of Colorado. This transfer did not happen when Utah became a state. About 70 percent of Utah's land mass continued to be owned and controlled by the federal government, as compared to single-digit percentages for states east of Colorado. Over the past 20 years, education funding in eastern states has increased by 68 percent, while western states have only been able to increase education funding by 35 percent.

The legislators working on our public land problem believe they have a solution on long-term education funding by opening up greater access to our natural resources on federal lands for exploration and development. These lands are our lands and should be put to beneficial use for the citizens of the state. The increased tax revenues would provide for the costs of education while also addressing Utah's push towards energy independence and economic growth. The proposal would require the federal government to transfer title of most public lands to the state by the end of 2014.

We know Utah is home to abundant oil and natural gas reserves, but restrictions placed on public lands by the federal government render many reserves difficult or off limits all together.

That fact became acutely apparent a few weeks ago when the BLM released its most recent proposal that, if approved, would significantly reduce the amount federal lands available in Utah for oil shale mining. We are left to attempt to provide for all the needs of the state with a significant financial handicap. Not to mention, how we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil if we can't access our internal reserve?

Under the package proposal, if lands were turned over to the state and restrictions loosened, significant job growth would result and Utahns would be the beneficiaries. Net profits from the sale of the newly acquired land would serve to bolster the funding of Utah's education programs and state budget, while also helping pay down the national debt. Utah would have a more bona fide role in the use and oversight of public lands, including overseeing the careful development of our natural resources and protection of delicate and beautiful areas.

The state of Utah is the only entity that will stick up for Utahns when it comes to holding the federal government to its promises. The failure of the federal government to keep the promises on public lands in the enabling act is a terrible breach of faith that has had a 116-year impact on our ability to fund the needs of the state.

If we don't check the federal government on this issue, no one else will do it for us and we will have to look at other financial options to raise the funds necessary to take care of the needs of the state.

Brad Dee is the House majority leader. He represents House District 11, which covers portions of Davis and Weber counties.

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