Switchback- Utah House Bill 148- Good or Bad for Outdoor Recreation?

In March, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed HB 148 which asks the federal government, which owns a majority of the land in the state, to give back more than 20 million acres. A similar measure, was passed in Arizona, but was vetoed, and similar bills patterned after Utah’s are being prepared for filing next year in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. The State is also preparing lawsuits, to reclaim thousands of sections of road that cross federal lands but that the state argues should properly be the province of the states and counties.

The “Sagebrush Rebellion”gave rise in Western States in the  60’s and 70’s  by organized groups pressuring public lands policy makers, especially for grazing of sheep and cattle on public lands, and for mineral extraction policies.  The “Rebellion” wanted the federal government to give more control of government owned Western lands to state and local authorities, and was meant to increase the growth of Western economies. “This is not your father’s sagebrush rebellion,” says State Representative Ken Ivory, a Republican and chief sponsor of the Utah bill, “There are very sound legal bases for doing this.”


How will HB 148 affect outdoor recreation? Good or Bad?

Utah Safeguards Outdoor Recreation

By Governor Gary Herbert

I’m a little biased, but the State of Utah stands out. We stand out for our unparalleled quality of life, we stand out as the best state for business, and our scenic areas unquestionably stand out.

Yet despite our leadership in so many areas, Utah’s economic potential and educational resources are hindered by the fact that two-thirds of the state’s land mass is controlled by Washington, D.C., and burdened with unwieldy barriers to reasonable management, access, and development. In response, state leaders passed HB148, The Transfer of Public Lands Act, to restore a proper balance.

People don’t flock to visit Utah because the lands are federally managed.  They flock to Utah because Utah lands are unique, precious, and visually—even spiritually—stunning.  The lands we all love and treasure won’t be any less public if managed by the state.  Plus, the recent fires, devastating bark beetle kills, closed roads and billion-dollar funding backlogs demonstrate that federal ownership and good management are not synonymous.

In an effort to address current challenges, Utah’s leaders, in cooperation with the Outdoor Industry Association and other recreational stakeholders, are developing a balanced, reasonable outdoor recreation vision. I remain firmly committed to the future of Utah’s outdoor recreation. But it simply makes sense to return control of that future to those who care most, those who actually live here—Utahns.

We can all agree that some areas of Utah are appropriate for development, while others are better suited for recreation and preservation. Giving the state the ability to protect and preserve recreational opportunities, explore responsible energy development, and optimize multiple uses will yield the most benefit for all Utahns—and especially the recreation industry.

Utahns take great pride in our beautiful state being America’s national park capital. More than six million people visit our five stunning national parks each year, and Utah’s 43 state parks draw 4.8 million visitors annually. State leaders validated that pride when we passed HB148. We safeguarded not only iconic locations in the outdoor landscape, but Utah’s wilderness areas as well. Moreover, we included provisions for additional protected areas, based on Utah’s values.

What critics overlook is that outdoor adventurists will now have expanded opportunity. HB148 provided for a Public Lands Commission to responsibly manage public lands, and any land use changes will go through a rigorous process of public dialog driven at the local level.

Moreover, the timing of this effort is no accident. The stark reality is that Utah’s state revenue growth—not to mention the nation’s energy security—is seriously constricted by limited public land access and development. This directly impacts our capacity to fund crucial state priorities—mainly public education.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in untapped natural resource potential, unexplored recreation potential and currently restricted access are held hostage by Washington, D.C.’s arbitrary and inconsistent regulatory practices. It is patently unfair and unacceptable that Utah’s schoolchildren face an enormous financial disadvantage relative to students in other states with larger tax bases and less public land.

There is significant misunderstanding and misinformation about what H.B. 148 does. Let me be clear: The State of Utah has not sued the federal government over public lands. Negotiation, legislation, and litigation are all possible tools we may consider bring about a constructive dialog with the federal government about public lands.

Responsible energy development and meaningful recreational uses are not mutually exclusive. The best public policy comes from a prudent, reasoned balance between diverse interests.

We can ensure our favorite backcountry playgrounds are preserved, enhance education resources and develop critical energy resources, while strengthening our local economy and protecting Utah’s outdoor treasures.

It’s a matter of commitment. It’s a matter of vision. Utah has both.

Governor Herbert’s Land Grab- A Disaster for Recreation

By Scott Groene, Executive Director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

If Utah Governor Gary Herbert succeeds in his war on our public lands, it will be a disaster for human powered recreation.  Herbert’s been claiming that he can seize 30 million acres of public land, pay to manage them, raise new revenues, and not harm Utah’s crown recreation areas.  This is just another politician’s promise of the impossible.

There are two fronts in Governor Herbert’s war on our public lands, the first of which he doesn’t like to talk about, but it’s already well underway and costing Utah taxpayers.   In May, his lawyers filed 22 lawsuits against the United States seeking over 10,000 “road” claims crossing designated wilderness, national parks, and national monuments.  Many of the more than 40,000 miles of “roads” involved are actually wash bottoms, two tracks or rough trails.  If successful, Herbert’s litigation will prevent the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management from managing ATVs and dirt bikes in these areas.

Should Herbert win, then a hiker headed to the Halls Creek narrows in Capitol Reef National Park — or across the newly designated Canaan Mountain Wilderness – will unexpectedly encounter the racket and dust raised by off-road vehicles.

As if the Governor’s 22 lawsuits weren’t enough, in March Herbert signed HB 148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act.  The Act states that by midnight on Dec. 31, 2013, the United States must convey to Utah, free of charge, 30 million acres of land that has been held in federal ownership for generations.  If the federal government refuses, the law authorizes litigation, and Utah will face the United States of America in court.

What happens if Herbert gets his hands on these lands?  He’s tried to suggest that he wouldn’t harm recreation — but such a claim is economically impossible.  He admits he wants the 30 million acres to make money for Utah.  But here’s the problem: the federal government currently spends approximately $300 million per year to manage these federal lands.  This covers such expenses as staff salaries, fire suppression, and payments in lieu of taxes to the counties.  So to turn a profit, Governor Herbert first has to raise an estimated $300 million per year just to cover the management costs of these lands.

Yet according to the language of H.B. 148, for any public lands he sells off, a full 95% of proceeds will go to the United States government.  Faced with the need to raise an estimated 3 billion dollars in the next decade on management costs, and since he’ll only get 5 cents for each dollar he receives per acre, he would have to sell a good deal of land every year.  And he clearly won’t cover those management costs by selling sagebrush flats in the West Desert (not to say some of us don’t love that lonely country).  Instead, he’d have to sell off the prime real estate for second homes with high dollar value — in places such as Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and Mill Creek Canyon in the Wasatch National Forest above Salt Lake City.

His alternative revenue stream would come from leasing huge chunks of land to the oil and gas industry.  Yet most of the valuable energy land is already under lease to the United States, with contracts that would remain in place.  So Herbert would have to lease new areas, which is possible only by going after those lands that are currently closed to leasing because they are protected as wilderness study areas or national monuments.   That puts a bull’s eye on landscapes such as Desolation Canyon, the Book Cliffs, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Any way you shake it, if Herbert succeeds, he’ll need to sell off for real estate development or lease to the drillers the best of Utah’s backcountry — and a lot of it, every year.

It’s worth mentioning that Utah doesn’t do so well with the land it already owns.  Utah cut state parks funding from $12 million in 2010 to $6.7 million in 2012.

Also, Herbert’s legal and moral claim that Utah is owed these lands is nonsense.  In fact, the Utah Constitution explicitly states that “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.”

Finally, Herbert uses as a ruse the claim that he needs to take over federal land to fund Utah’s education.  Utah’s public lands are not the reason we rank dead last in school funding.  Utah actually has more private land per person than over half of our fellow states.   And there is no correlation between states’ per-pupil funding and the availability of non-federal land within their borders.

Our problem rests with our legislature’s choices, which seem to favor the energy industry over our kids.  In 2011, Utah had the lowest effective tax rate on oil and natural gas activity of any western energy-producing state.  And Utah has no severance tax on coal (neighboring Wyoming has a coal severance tax rate of between 3.75 percent and 7 percent).  School dollars are annually diverted to other projects, primarily transportation and roads.

Herbert has tried to enlist the support of other western governors, but for good reason none are willing to follow him down this radical path.  Our Governor is a sagebrush rebel without a posse.

Imagine the best of Utah’s world class recreation: climbing in Indian Creek, canyoneering in Robbers Roost, biking the Wasatch Crest Trail, boating Westwater or Desolation Canyons, hiking the Escalante, hunting in the Book Cliffs, or just sniffing wildflowers in Albion Basin.  All of these activities are jeopardized by Herbert’s actions, as is the freedom we now enjoy to explore the 30 million acres of public lands in Utah that are owned by all Americans.


3 Responses to “Switchback- Utah House Bill 148- Good or Bad for Outdoor Recreation?”

  1. This is only one piece of a giant puzzle threatening Utah’s resources. The Uintah County Water Source Protection Coalition is fighting to save the Ashley Valley’s primary source of water from phosphate mining.

    SITLA has an unique position of control in Utah. They seem to be independently managed and answer to no one. The land SITLA owns in Uintah County has phosphate leases. SITLA is mandated to make money for schools. They are not interested in the side effects of mining on their leased land. DOGM is deemed responsible to manage the oil, gas and mining industries. There are 700 mines in Utah and 4 people to monitor them.

    Agrium has bought the SITLA leases in Uintah County. This property sits over Ashley Springs. These springs provide 90-95% of the water to the area. In spite of limited water resources in our desert landscape, booming population growth and potential damage the area, there is no one in the state truly looking out for and protecting our watershed. The Department of Water Quality says that it’s SITLA land and they can’t do anything about it. SITLA says DOGM issues the permits. DOGM says by law they have to issue the exploratory permit that could potentially damage the fragile limestone karst system.

    Around and around we go in a world that supports the energy and mining industres. Given the proposed land grab I can only imagine that it will get worse as people fight to grab up our finite resources. Once this beautiful land is destroyed, there is no mitigation. I don’t believe that Governor Herbert will have fair or balanced policies should these lands transfer ownership. Preference will also go to extraction which equals money.

  2. When I read the Governor’s “Utah Safeguards Public Recreation” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. When the Governor talks about a public dialog driven at the local level, this translates into giving complete control of our local Public Lands to a handful of county commissioners. The battle cry “not a acre of wilderness in Uintah County” has been political policy around here for decades.

    Imagine what their plans must be for places like Desolation Canyon, The Book Cliffs, Greater Dinosaur, the White River etc.

    Public Education is being use as a scapegoat for a speculated and unbridled oil, gas and mining boom. Billions to be made, we can occupy ourselves with the destruction of more forests and spills. Transition to clean and more stable energy? With leadership like Governor Herbert?

    When the Governor smoothly lays out phrases like “untapped natural resource potential” and “unexplored recreational potential” what that means and obviously is: Total state directed development.

    The Governor is always talking about “restricted access”. That means any place peace and quiet might be preferred over the roar of ORV’s. Or a place managed for it’s natural or archaeological qualities that won’t let the Governor bring in his bulldozers, darn!

    Public dialog is great for the Governor, as long as it has no effect on his power. These are your lands to use, respect and enjoy. Not the Governor’s, not your county commissioners, not the energy companies, yours.

  3. kumquat, your comments ring loudly here in Idaho as well. idaho County Commissioners just forked over $5000 to join Ken Ivory’s American Lands Council. You could never ever in a million years convince these guys that the jobs created by the attraction of wide open spaces and tremendous outdoor recreation opportunities will be sacrified, if they were ever able to push through on this agenda. We’ve got the same crusaders repeating the same oral lip service, Our battle cry has been the same in lieu of the Lochsa Land Exchange. Not one acre. But the Idaho County Commissioners are all to eager to now crusade for Ken Ivory’s American Lands Council. i’ve been writing articles on http://stoptheswap.net concerning this agenda to dispose of public lands to the state of Idaho. Its a juggernaut of blind ambition.

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