Utah’s public lands aren’t about to change hands

 

Plenty of ink has been spilled lately over Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, the controversial law requiring the federal government to turn over 31.2 million acres of public land to the state of Utah – without even a token payment to the U.S. Treasury. But should the American public take this proposal seriously?

The Utah Legislature’s legal counsel noted that the transfer law was likely unconstitutional. After all, the federal government’s right to retain and manage the federal estate is considered settled law according to a long line of Supreme Court cases, starting with Kleppe v. New Mexico in 1976. Nonetheless, state legislators have appropriated millions of dollars of Utah taxpayers’ money to study the potential implications of state ownership and to litigate title to federal lands. 

Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, the bill’s lead sponsor, continues to press the discredited notion that certain states are somehow “entitled” to the nation’s public lands. He’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from his fellow county commissioners to form a nonprofit group, the American Lands Council, to push for state takeovers. As a representative of the council, he’s traveled far and wide, trying to convince Westerners that their states are the rightful owners of America’s national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. Despite drawing the attention of sagebrush rebels like Cliven Bundy in Nevada and right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, Ivory’s efforts have thus far failed to spur other states to pass similar legislation.

Rep. Ivory has also been stymied in Utah. When his bill passed in 2012, it demanded that the federal government relinquish all federal lands in the state by the end of 2014. That deadline passed without any federal action, and Utah’s attorney general has yet to file suit to force the issue. The issue remains alive, however; the Utah Legislature appropriated $2 million dollars to hire outside counsel to strategize and sue, if necessary.

Here’s the basic question: Does Utah have a legal leg to stand on?  To seize federal public lands, Utah would have to file suit under the Quiet Title Act, which requires proof that the state has a valid claim of ownership. But the statute of limitations under this law ran long ago, with the passage of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act in 1976.   

Rep. Ivory’s cause is not attracting much political support either. Staunchly conservative editorial boards at Utah’s Deseret News and the St. George Spectrum recently editorialized against transferring federal lands to the state of Utah. Even Gale Norton, former Interior secretary under George W. Bush, would not back Ivory at a recent conference he hosted on the issue in Washington, D.C.

Then, just before Christmas, a 784-page economic study of the state’s proposed transfer found that the transfer failed to make sense financially for the state.  According to the study, even if the state got to keep the public’s mineral royalties, it would still come up short. Under the economic study’s most optimistic scenario -- based on consistently high oil prices -- Utah’s public education system would face a $1 billion deficit in 20 years.

In order to make the numbers work at all, the state would have to aggressively drill for oil in many publicly valued places such as the region around Canyonlands National Park. And even doing that, the state would still face a $100 million backlog in deferred maintenance costs for everything from roads to campgrounds.

So here’s $2 million worth of free advice to the State of Utah: Stop the madness. Congress has the exclusive authority to transfer public lands. The only viable path forward is to pass transfer legislation through Congress and obtain the president’s signature -- an approach that isn’t going anywhere.  Remember, the American public hasn’t responded well to past attempts to seize control of their public lands.  In short, it’s time for the backers of this doomed land grab to admit defeat and leave America’s public lands alone.

Hillary Hoffmann is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a law professor at Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center, specializing in natural resources and public lands issues throughout the West.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...