"The people inhabiting this State do affirm and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries hereof..."
-- Utah Constitution, Article 3, Section 2
When Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, is the voice of reason, the argument has gone off the rails. Utah suing the federal government to get Utah's federal land is one such train wreck.
Noel is not usually the calm one.
His efforts to build a nuclear power plant in Utah are as tenacious as they are dangerous. He thinks climate change is a global conspiracy to control population. He hates federal wilderness designations.
So I was gobsmacked when Noel warned the Utah Legislature to think twice before it sued the federal government.
It could get nasty, he warned. "If you're not willing to stand up and be recognized, then don't put a lot of words on paper."
Utah's Constitution (quoted at the top of this column) denies any claim to those lands "forever." Even so, the Legislature is considering bills to sue for the control of those lands.
Noel worries the feds could retaliate by, for example, canceling Utahns' grazing rights.
Maybe Noel is really worried Utah will win. Federal grazing fees are a massive federal subsidy to Utah ranchers.
Talk about entitlements. Ranchers all around the West pay $21 million a year in grazing fees. The Government Accountability Office says the federal government spends $144 million managing grazing operations on public land.
That's $123 million in grazing value that 22,000 ranchers using 235 million acres of public land all over the West get free.
If Utah wins, will it continue to subsidize ranchers? Not if it wants that land to generate money, it won't.
Legislators says Utahns can best manage their own land. They believe free-market capitalism, not pesky environmental regulations, will protect valuable land.
But our lawmakers forget that there have been cases in which Utahns ended up begging the federal government to manage Utah land after Utahns botched the job.
Wheeler Creek, now part of Snowbasin, was privately owned in the 1920s. Unrestrained by environmental regulations, Utahns used free-market capitalism to manage Wheeler Creek to death.
First, they stripped the land of all its timber. Then they denuded the land by grazing.
The subsequent erosion flavored Ogden's water with cattle poop and juice from the occasional dead steer. Thoroughly disgusted, Ogden bought the land from Utahns and gave it, free, to the federal government to manage.
Much of the public land the U.S. Forest Service manages around Weber County was cleared of all its trees and grazed to a nubbin in the late 19th century, causing horrible flooding.
Federal management has meant a lot less flooding.
Rep. Ken Sumison, R-Lehi, one of the sponsors of the land-grab litigation, is irresponsibly hyperbolic about its supposed benefits.
"This could create thousands of jobs. We could eliminate our state income tax," he said.
Utah supposedly wants those lands to generate money for education. All of Utah's income taxes, $2.5 billion, now go to education.
Eliminate the income tax, you need $2.5 billion in new revenues off that federal land before education funding gets back to the pathetic level it now enjoys.
Anyone here really think that will happen?
Of course not.
As many a Davis County bedroom community is discovering, growth means higher taxes, not lower. New development means new schools, highways, sewers, fire departments and more.
This whole thing is pie in the sky, a money and power grab by supposedly "small government" lawmakers.
It's so loony, it has got me agreeing with Noel.
If that doesn't scare you, nothing will.
Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at www.standard.net.