Utah Grabbing Land from BLM While Texas Plays Defense

Texas Governor Rick Perry weighed in on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) handling of the land issue along the Red River border between Texas and Oklahoma saying, “The federal government already owns too much land.” Some in the state of Utah seem to be ready to agree with him as they are torn between expanding the federal control over public land in the Beehive State as opposed to those who seek to use the land for private economic development.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R), earlier this year, signed the Transfer of Public Lands Act. This new state law calls upon the federal government to turn over control of more than 30 million acres to the State. If Utah gains control of these lands, much of it could be used for economic and resource development. In an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Thomas Burr takes a look at some of the issues surrounding this potential change of land ownership.

The SLTribune describes the beauty and majesty of some of the land where “redrock wonders merge into a scrubland oasis with a peak that juts 11,000 feet into the sky.” The article reports the Navajo Nation has pitched Congress on the idea of creating a Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area which would put 1.9 million acres under protection from development. However, as Congress has been deliberately slow in approving issues related to federal land, some members of the Utah Diné Bikéyah non-profit group are attempting to bypass Congress by going to President Obama seeking executive action in the creation of a national monument.

Complaining about the lack of Congressional action, Willie Grayeyes, a member of the non-profit group, said, "The Utah delegates are only fumbling the ball. They aren’t really tackling it." The SLTribune reported that President Obama has already penned a handful of monuments across the country under his authority set forth in the 1906 Antiquities Act and said, during his 2014 State of the Union address, “"I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."

Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT) is in opposition to the unilateral action by this and previous presidents. He brought up a 1996 action by then President Bill Clinton where, with the swipe of a pen, he converted 1.8 million acres of public land in Utah to a national monument. He called it the “mother of all land grabs.”

The SLTribune reported the 2010-2011 Congress as being the first Congress in four decades not to set aside a single acre of wilderness area.

The Moab Utah Times-Independent also reported on this subject but took a different lead approach, focusing on options for public sector use of the land and economic opportunities. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) is preparing a public lands initiative that he hopes will move stakeholders across the eastern region of Utah beyond previous conflicts that have long divided them as to how these lands should be used and managed.

In a public meeting held in Grand County, Curtis Wells, a local resident spoke up about the possibility of using federal lands for resource development such as oil, gas, potash and uranium. “That land is opportunity,” Wells said. Another resident, Darrell Dalton urged the council to scal back the Grand County Council committee’s plans for additional wilderness areas. He urged Gov. Herbert and the state’s lawmakers to take back “our” lands and get rid of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service altogether.

Fighting some of the same environmental groups that have opposed natural resource development on other states, local resident Dusty Wilson reminded those in attendance about other local area residents who struggle to survive on tourist-based businesses. He said, mineral development, by contrast, is a viable industry that has kept local residents employed for generations. “You people don’t understand,” Wilson said. “We’re still here. We’re sustainable and we don’t need a babysitter.”

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) took a different stand on the issue on their website and attacked Gov. Herbert. They claim Gov. Herbert’s efforts to return control of public land to the state “Bad for Utah”. They claim his plans would undermine the state’s heritage, cost taxpayers untold millions of dollars in lawsuits and that it is bad for businesses.

The SUWA claims “If Herbert’s land grab prevails, many of these lands could be sold or developed. Utahns can expect to encounter “No Trespassing” signs and scars of mineral development in our most beloved landscapes.” They claim the federal government currently pays for the management of these lands and that cost would, if the land was returned to state control, fall on the taxpayers of Utah.

What Texas Governor Rick Perry might find interesting about this is the people of Utah are having the discussion about the pros and cons of divesting the federal government of the vast holdings of federal land as opposed to having to fight off the BLM for trying to take more.

Natural resource development has been a boon for states like Texas and North Dakota (among others) in both revenues created for the states through the harvesting of natural resources and from the creation of long-term high-paying jobs.

Follow Bob Price on Twitter @BobPriceBBTX.


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