The American public—every person born in or naturalized to this country—owns 57.4 percent of the state of Utah.
It’s some prime real estate, too. From the High Uintas to the Canyonlands, to the Grand Staircase and the iconic desert arches, Utah is perhaps America’s most striking landscape. For sportsmen, it’s also one of the most diverse. From the striped bass and panfish in Lake Powell on its southern fringes, to the trophy trout that haunt the lakes on Boulder Mountain, to the trout water on the Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Utah truly is an angler’s paradise.
Others whose passion lies in the outdoors have an equal appreciation for the Beehive State. Mountain bikers and off-roaders flock to Moab all year long to ride the trails. Skiers hit the slopes along the Wasatch Front and in Park City for some of the best snow on earth. Climbers and hikers venture afield into the desert and the mountains, and hunters chase trophy mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and even moose in Utah’s wild country.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Utah results in $12 billion in consumer spending every year, more than 120,000 jobs worth $3.6 billion in salaries and wages annually and nets $856 million in state and local tax revenue yearly. It is a stable and growing economic driver, not subject to booms or busts. It’s a largely renewable industry—so long as the places remain where people visit to pursue their outdoor passions, the economy surrounding it will remain intact. Oh, and it employs—nationwide—almost three times the number of Americans as the oil gas industry.
Why, then, with such a vibrant, growing and relatively low-impact industry feeding state and federal coffers in Utah, are the policy bigwigs in the state so opposed to the notion of federal ownership of land in Utah? It’s the single-most important resource to this incredibly vibrant industry.
The state is home to the American Lands Council, which was founded by state Rep. Ken Ivory, and seeks to privatize or annex the vast majority of Utah’s public lands. In 2012, Ivory helped convinced the Utah Legislature to demand that the feds turn over American public lands to the state for state management.
The logic? Oil and gas leases on public lands could pay for the management of said lands, and Utah would be rid of those pesky feds shoving their laws and order down the throats of its citizens.
Reality, of course, is quite a bit different. A recent study conducted by the University of Idaho noted that, should Idaho follow Utah’s lead and somehow seize control of public land belonging to every American, the state would find itself with an annual shortfall of more than $100 million, assuming management of public lands remained consistent to its management now. Nothing says Utah wouldn’t be put in the same dubious position, especially now, with oil trading at $44 a barrel and gas at $2.38 per million BTUs. In fact, a study done last year by three Utah universities claims Utah will face an annual bill of $280 million. That, of course, is on top of the money that’s already been flushed studying the issue—the state Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands is commissioning consultants to craft legal and lobbying strategies for the push to acquire American public lands to the tune of $2 million, and lawmakers want another $500,000 to study the potential benefits on schools should the state take over ownership. This effort is a money pit that, no matter the outcome, ends badly for Utah taxpayers.
The likely outcome of a takeover? A public lands fire sale. Privatization. Those vistas hunters use to glass for elk? Locked up. The trails bikers use to see the desert? Fenced off. Posted. Rivers? Good luck.
It’s also no secret that Utah’s prominent politicians are largely “sponsored” by the oil and gas industry through campaign donations (U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop raised $110,000 from oil and gas interests in his 2013-2014 campaign cycle, according to opensecrets.org), or they take their marching orders from groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative bill mill that either helped Ivory craft his Utah public lands takeover bill and worked like mad to get other states to do same thing (with marginal success to date, thankfully). And the corporate advisory board for ALEC? Riddled with executives from energy giants like Exxon-Mobil (Cynthia Bergman), Peabody Energy (Michael Blank) and Koch Industries (Michael Morgan).
How about ALC? What runs its engine? According to its 2013 IRS report, it collected just shy of $210,000 from the likes of rural Utah counties and the extractive industry (including the notorious Koch Brothers) to advocate for the public lands seizure. It paid Ivory a salary of $95,000 as its president and his wife nearly $20,000 as its communications officer. Another $35,000 went to a lobbyist. That makes for a non-profit that spends more than half its bankroll—much of which was donated indirectly by taxpayers—to line the pockets of a select few while essentially trying to rob those same taxpayers of their ownership of public lands.
Unfortunately, it appears the disparate players in the outdoor world, though well-meaning, don’t have the bankroll needed to buy favor with lawmakers. And make no mistake about it—that’s how Washington works these days.
Why else would a seemingly non-controversial federal funding program—and one beloved by many who understand exactly what is has done for decades—be allowed to whither on the legislative vine and die? The Land and Water Conservation Fund—which is funded almost entirely from royalties charged on offshore oil and gas leases which are then invested in onshore conservation projects—is right up there with the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act as one of the best accomplishments in the history of the United States Congress. It literally costs the American taxpayer nothing, but contributes billions of dollars every year in revenue to local communities that benefit from LWCF projects.
Communities and counties in all 50 states have been the direct beneficiaries of LWCF funding since it was put into place half a century ago. The legislative directive was to have Congress use royalty payments from offshore drilling to fund the $900 million account every year. And that money, until Oct. 1 of this year, went to restore aging infrastructure at national parks, protect vital fish and game habitat, improve access to public lands for recreation purposes, restore rivers, acquire historical and cultural sites for the enjoyment of the people … the list goes on and on.
Sadly, only once in 50 years has the fund received its full allocation—most years, it got a fraction of it. But the spirit of the legislation was altruistic and despite congress regularly diverting its budget for other purposes, the LWCF has funded thousands of projects across the country and has, quite simply, made the lives of Americans better.
Enter Congressman Rob Bishop, the Grand Poobah of the Utah federal delegation and a brazen industry mouthpiece who despises anything federal, perhaps representative of the oil-and-gas heavy district he represents that skirts the north end of Salt Lake City and extends east and includes the not-so-progressive outposts of Vernal and Duchesne and Bonanza. Industry is king in this district, even though it also offers some of the best fishing, hunting and skiing in the country.
As the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Bishop is responsible for the bringing about death of the LWCF. A recent New York Times opinion piece by western writer Timothy Egan noted that “Bishop is the villian … a grim-faced ideologue who clearly doesn’t like public land or parks.”
Egan noted that Bishop would prefer to give the royalty fees back to the oil and gas industry he so ably represents in Congress, to the detriment of millions of Americans and a recreation economy that is growing and dependent on the lands and waters he disdains.
He’s not alone, of course. The bulk of the Utah federal delegation comes at politics from the extreme far-right, investing energy into everything from defunding Planned Parenthood, banning gay marriage and impeaching the president—you know, those vital social issues so important to the vocal minority but so obviously petty and fear-based as to make the average American squirm at the notion that these issues are worthy of debate and Congressional resources.
So here’s an idea. Let’s just get rid of Utah. Kick ‘em out. Utah’s lawmakers want no federal oversight in their state, so much so that they demanded that federal lands be turned over to the state government for management. That’s not going to happen. But we can give Utah the next best thing: its independence.
But we’re keeping our public land.
This is land that belongs just as much to the little kid fishing a farm pond in Ohio as it does to Ken Ivory or Rob Bishop. Seizing public lands and then, presumably, reaping rewards from their mineral production or (more likely) their outright sale is likely illegal. The landlords—of which, if you’re a U.S. citizen, you are one—will not allow it.
But if Utah’s lawmakers want the feds out of Utah, so be it. We’ll take our commonly held real estate, all the funds the government invests in rural communities as payment in lieu of taxes, highway funds, school funds, infrastructure funds and leave the rest of Utah to its citizens and the lawmakers they chose to represent them. That amounted to about $23.5 billion in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Here’s what Utah would look like without its federal footprint. And Utahns are welcome to it.
The rest of that land—American land—stays with the rest of us, who value one of our country’s greatest ideas: common ownership of land for use by the people and, for a price, by industry, in perpetuity. We don’t have to ask permission to hunt or fish. We don’t have to beg the favor of a landlord to venture off into the wild on a whim. And we’re not about to simply give our birthright to the former state of Utah, no matter what it’s lawmakers demand.
We’ll continue to oversee our land, as the Americans who own it. We’ll continue to fund its management and lease it, as necessary, to American industrial interests for timber harvests and oil and gas drilling. Maybe we’ll extend the borders of Colorado on the east, Arizona on the south, Nevada to the west and Idaho and Wyoming to the north. Those floating pieces of American paradise situated within the former state of Utah? Yep, they’re ours, too. Of course, as all foreigners are allowed to do, Utahns can still visit our American public lands, but any PILT fees ($37 million in 2014) will go away. The roads, education and the infrastructure we fund in Utah? Forget that. We’ll pay for roads and upkeep within our American borders, and maybe we can split the difference where American roads and Utah roads connect.
We’ll have to kick any Utah cattle and sheep off our American land, too. Yep, those grazing fees are cheap as dirt, but we’ll only allow American ranchers to run stock on American public land. Only seems just, right? Why give foreigners such a sweet deal?
Utah wants the feds out? I say we do it. Boot Utah from the union, keep our American birthright and legacy intact and let the state’s electorate elevate Rob Bishop to Prime Minister or King or whatever they want. They can lease their own land for oil and gas drilling, or cut trees on private land for timber. They can mine for gold, zinc, copper and molybdenum beneath their own land, but not ours.
It’s what they want, right? No feds. No taxes. No laws. No interference.
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but does it sound any more absurd than the notion of Utah actually seizing public land that belongs to all Americans and managing it on its own? Trouble is, the anti-federal sentiment in Utah is pretty serious, and the flames of that trumped-up, industry-funded “rebellion” are troublesome, so much so that they’re part of the rural culture of the state (see Phil Lyman’s middle-finger ride into Recapture Canyon).
There are solutions, of course. Nobody has ever promoted the federal government as the ideal land manager. There is certainly room for improvement, but it must start in Congress, with folks like Rob Bishop who serve, as Egan noted in his Times piece, as “bomb throwers” rather than legislators with the best interest of Americans at heart.
You want better fire suppression on public lands? Invest in them from the Congressional level. You want more access? More maintenance? Better roads? Those things don’t come cheap, and Congress sets the budget. If you want public lands in Utah to be better managed, to be healthier and more functional, you actually have to pay for that (maybe by upping criminally low grazing fees or demanding that industry pay its own way? But then, that would fly in the face of about 25 percent of Bishop’s campaign warchest, wouldn’t it?). Bishop, instead, is content to block one of the best ideas for public lands infrastructural improvement—the LWCF— from getting a vote in committee because he disdains the idea of federal oversight in his state.
Truth be told—and this is terrifying—the future of the LWCF, and perhaps of public lands management all across America, is up to Utah’s 1st Congressional District and the industry lapdog they’ve elected to represent them. Rob Bishop has a lot of clout. A lot of power.
Another truth. Trying to seize assets that belong to every single citizen of this country is decisively un-American. This land truly is our land. It doesn’t belong to the Utah Legislature, Rob Bishop, Ken Ivory or Phil Lyman. It belongs to that little kid casting an Ugly Stick stuck to a Zebco 33 over the little farm pond for central Ohio bluegills. It belongs to the New York City shut-in, the kid from Compton, the mother of three from Milwaukee. This land isn’t yours to take.
The first step in improving how our public lands are managed—for all Americans—might be to clip a few sets of wings in Utah’s federal delegation and give good ideas a chance to work rather than letting them die because of the rigid dogma of a select few.
Is Utah up to the challenge?
* Editor's note (10/30). 'all' changed to 'vast majority' to more accurately reflect the stated mission of the ALC.