Over my glass of orange juice one morning I read the commentary by Jack Allen, a proud member of Weber County's Coffee Party, taking the Utah Legislature to task over efforts to obtain control of federal public lands within Utah. (May 1) Allen describes the effort as "a self-serving land grab...determined to allow exploitation by those who have the political influence and money to buy up or otherwise control these lands..."
I take it Mr. Allen is against the effort.
Look, members of the Utah Legislature, regardless of their background, perspective or political party affiliation, are trying to do what's best for the citizens of Utah, and particularly, Utah's school children. No one that I associate with, and I was a co-sponsor of HB 148, Utah's Transfer of Public Land Act, is in it for a so-called land grab. That's an inflammatory characterization of me and my colleagues and filled with hyperbole. No one has been "bought off" by special interests.
This struggle over public lands in Utah has been going on with the federal government since statehood and is nothing new. And don't get caught up in the archaic legal language of the late 19th century about "forever disclaiming all right and title to the unappropriated lands, etc." That was boilerplate legal language for many state enabling acts as they gained statehood. For example, North Dakota's enabling act of 1889 is almost word for the word the same. It became a state with almost 50 percent federal lands, 3 percent today; Nebraska, 1864, 22 percent federal lands, 1 percent today. But Nevada, 86 percent in 1864, 81 percent today and Utah in 1896, 86 percent federal and 67 percent today.
Utahns, since statehood have always expected the federal government to let the state and its people have ownership of and manage its public lands for the benefit of the people. But Congresses, and presidential administrations, and policies changed.
The point is that the federal government's promise at statehood to transfer title of our public lands is the same promise made with North Dakota and other states east of Colorado. Utah has abundant resources that could create jobs, and local and national wealth. And it would be done responsibly with respect to our unequalled public lands Mr. Allen so rightfully acknowledges. It's the only solution big enough to adequately fund our public schools.
I have studied the issues long and hard and sat through numerous meetings with lawyers offering various opinions on whether recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions offered a new pathway. I came away with the point of view that the effort was worth it. Utah's school children are disadvantaged in terms of funding and we can't tax ourselves to get to parity, we just can't.
For more of the history on the struggle for Utah public lands, go to Utah.gov and find the lieutenat governor's page. You'll see there two very excellent and detailed studies entitled, "AG Lands Transfer HB148 and Supplemental." Anyone who thoughtfully would like to understand the full breadth, depth, and complications of the issues should spend time with these reports.
Here are some of the principles that members of the Legislature and Governor Gary Herbert are guided by in this effort:
* Utah has always had, and will always have, public lands.
* Those closest to, and whose lives are most directly impacted by, these public lands are better situated to make decisions regarding the use and enjoyment of these lands.
* An orderly and informed process for, and structure of, the transfer of public lands can redound to all levels of government and to the needs and desires of both public and private interests.
Furthermore, I and my colleagues are bound by and happily so, to Article 18 of the Utah State Constitution which states: "The Legislature shall enact laws to prevent the destruction of and to preserve the Forests on the lands of the State, and upon any part of the public domain, the control of which may be conferred by Congress upon the State."
This provision not only clearly contemplates that it was anticipated that lands were to be transferred to the state, but it also demonstrates that Utahns have always recognized the importance of preserving and caring for forest lands.
And lest Mr. Allen or anyone who thinks that Utah is hanging out there alone, think again.
* The South Carolina legislature passed a resolution praising Utah's efforts.
* Idaho has passed similar legislation.
* Montana has set up a committee to study its federal lands and their possible transfer.
* Nevada is currently considering a federal lands transfer act.
* Colorado considered a similar bill but has not yet been successful.
* New Mexico considered a similar bill but has not yet been successful.
* Wyoming has created a task force to study the lands transfer.
There is a groundswell and it's just going to gain more and more momentum.
Will it be a long struggle? Absolutely. Will it be worth it? For my grandchildren's sake I believe so. Will we be successful? That's a big unknown.
I'm taking liberal poetic liberties with a poem by Alfred Lloyd Tennyson: "It's better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all."
To Mr. Allen I would only hope that the next time he brews up a pot of java he'll not only add his customary cream and sugar but also a measure of tolerance and trust, with a sprinkle of encouragement.
Handy represents District 16 in the Utah House of Representatives.