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Utah Seeks to Annex Federal Lands

Submitted by on June 17, 2012 – 1:22 am 8 Comments |  
A recent political maneuver by the state government of Utah is stirring up intense  controversy. “Utah’s Nuttiest Idea of All,” reads a June 2 headline in the Salt Lake Tribune. A more recent opinion piece by geographer Eric C. Ewart in the same newspaper argues that that the move is blatantly unconstitutional and will “derail the largest single part of Utah’s economy: tourism.” Looking into the future, Ewart contends that tomorrow’s youth will be asking their elders, “Grandpa, why did you destroy Utah’s natural landscapes in search of quick profit?”

The maneuver in question is reflected in a series of bills passed by the Utah state legislature and signed by Governor Gary Herbert that demand the “return” of most federal lands in Utah to state control by 2015, totaling some 30 million acres (12.14 million hectares). Although national parks and military lands would be excluded, national forests, national monuments, and wilderness areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management would be slated for transfer. Utah is also, as Ewart notes, “suing the various federal agencies in order to gain access to 12,000 miles of closed and abandoned ‘roads’ … including stream beds, cow paths, wagon trails and footpaths.” Much of the money gained by the proposed transfer, supporters argue, would be earmarked for education. Critics contend that the scheme would amount to a massive give-away to mining, ranching, and property development interests, noting that the Utah’s government does not have the wherewithal to manage the lands, and would thus turn them over to private interests.

 The “defederalization” of public lands is a popular idea in Utah. The federal government currently owns fifty-seven percent of Utah’s land, the third highest figure in the country. Polling data show that 64 percent of Utahans are in favor of the proposed change. Views on the subject break down on party lines, with 84 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents supporting the proposal, as opposed to only 15 percent of Democrats. (Utah, it is important to note, is perhaps the most Republican-voting state in the union.)  As a recent Salt Lake Tribute article notes, “Respondents also showed a stark religious gap, with 77 percent of Mormons supporting the land quest and only 34 percent of non-Mormons doing the same.”

Opposition to federal land control is widespread throughout the interior West of the United States. Hostility reached a peak in many areas during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, which focused on resisting federal restrictions on mining and grazing on public lands. It is interesting that the current manifestation of the anti-federal movement is much stronger in Utah than in neighboring states. Utah is more Republican-oriented than its neighbors, but states such as Wyoming and Idaho are almost as conservative. It may be significant that a much larger expanse of Utah’s federal lands are managed as national monuments, which are largely off-limits to development, than those of other western states. Many Utahans were outraged in 1996 when president Bill Clinton designated 1.9 million acres (769,000 HA) in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, forming the largest national monument in the United States. Environmentalists across the country, however, were delighted by the action.

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Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Federal ownership is no guarantee of preservation.  The government allowed clearcutting on federal lands in Washington (not in the National Parks, of course, but I believe in the National Forests) at below market rates, if I am not mistaken.  As I recall, a part of the issue was also restrictions on use of lands abutting the federal lands, although this is now a distant memory for me.  As to the necessity of federal ownership for the preservation of land, I don’t recall a sense that Maine or upstate New York were “overdeveloped.”  Perhaps, if the government seized some chunks of eastern states, Westerners might not feel so put upon.

    • Good point — lands under the authority of the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are managed for “multiple uses,” of which resource extraction usually has priority. The BLM is especially favorable to ranching and mining interests. National monuments, however, are managed much like national parks. 

      • JBnID

        Multiple use for sure but ‘most beneficial’ is in the language, so a mine that disturbs maybe 3,000 acres will pay more long term money in royalties than grazing permits will pay. The mine gets the bid.

        I know two ranchers who pay in excess of $30K per month for five months of grazing season, $150K per year for grass. Hikers and photographers have a hard time competing unless politics come into play.

      • corners

        BLM seems corrupt. Americans dont seem to get our fair share to the US treasury for resources pulled out of the ground

    • corners

      I live in Maine. And the top 75% of the state is full of ghost towns and old mill towns way past their glory days. Most of the northern state is in poverty because there is nothing there anymore. What few military bases are now also gone, leaving those cities lurching, dying.

  • Stacy Culpepper

    Having lived in the West (Montana) for several years, and maintained a close connection to the local politics of the region after I left, BUT being a native easterner; I can tell you that folks on the Eastern Seaboard are generally oblivious to how sensitive of an issue this is to the intermountain west.  A good parallel is ignorance factor of most of the westerners I encountered regarding knowledge of the American Civil War.  This is not a disparaging comment at all, only an observation on the cultural emics of geography that are supergrouped by a spatially larger polity.  I was one of those very ignorant Easterners, but was fortunate enough to make close friendship with a native Oregonian who was also a professional historian of the American West.  Thanks for such a great topical posting Martin.

    • Thanks for the insightful observations. The topic is indeed extremely sensitive — something that outsiders often fail to understand.  

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  • Rick Crawford

    This is a complicated issue that has an easy solution that is good for everyone. The solution would be for the Forest Service and BLM to start managing the land based on the habitat type and directives and without bias to the political party that is in charge. Because this has not happened and the basic directives of proper scientific management by the government organizations are not being met and have not for over 20 years, the State of Utah and other Western States are being forced to act or lose their land to castrophic wildfire, erosion, overgrazing etc. Our founding fathers actually forsaw potential conflicts such as this and put clauses into the Constitution to prevent this from happening. The Federal Government was forbidden from owning land except for Post Offices and businesses. They were forbidden from owning land within a State and the creation of A State Within A State where two sets of laws conflict. Using territorial law the Federal Government has continued to rule public land within Western States as Territories. This has set a precidence that will have to be justified in light of the Constitution at some point. There is a big battle ahead and no one is the winner.