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Push To Sell Off Federal Lands

by Michael R. Shea   |  May 9th, 2017 0
Push To Sell Off Federal Lands

Illustration by Sean Delonas

Why is the Beehive State ground zero for the push to sell off federal lands?

Back in January, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R) introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that sought to “offer for disposal by competitive sale” 3.3 million acres of federally managed land across the West.

Hunters and outdoor advocates took up torches and pitchforks, with rallies, social media campaigns, op-ed letters, and coordinated outreach to members of Congress. It worked. Days later, Chaffetz posted an Instagram photo of himself, dressed in camo, saying the bill was dropped. Then, a few weeks later, the Outdoor Retailer show dropped Utah altogether.

One of the largest industry trade shows in the country, Outdoor Retailer has been held in Salt Lake City twice a year for nearly two decades. It’s contributed $45 million to the state economy each year, but organizers took issue with the state’s position on public land. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) had called on the Trump administration to overturn the designation of 1.3 million acres in southern Utah as the newest national monument.

President Obama signed Bear Ears National Monument into existence in the last weeks of his term, over a chorus of screaming Utah Republicans. When they kept screaming, Outdoor Retailer walked away.

But there’s more. A follow-up to Chaffetz’s land sale bill is still on the table in Congress: H.R. 622 Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act. Its goals are to remove all law enforcement powers from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management while transferring policing duty to local LEO. Of course, policing the 3.4 million acres of federal ground in Utah is wildly expensive, so the bill also requires the feds to still pay the costs.

Rep. Rob Bishop, another Republican congressman from Utah, made it easier for the government to offload federal lands earlier this year when he revised the House budget plan. His rule change revalued federal land at zero dollars. (By the way, last year, the Bureau of Land Management made $2 billion in lease royalties alone.) In this way, a transfer to the states would skirt federal law that says no government sale can decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt. In March, Bishop was at it again, this time requesting $50 million in the federal budget to help cover the costs of such a transfer.

Utah Republicans are grossly out of step with public opinion. A January poll by Colorado College of the Intermountain West found that transfer of federal lands to the states is largely unpopular with voters in the West; 63 percent said they approved of President Trump’s stated campaign pledge to keep public land in public hands. So, we have to wonder, what’s driving Utah politicians?

In 2012, the modern land transfer movement started with the Utah Public Land Transfer Act, according to Joel Webster, director of the Center for Western Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Approved by the state legislature and signed by Governor Herbert, the act called for the turnover of 31.2 million acres and authorized a lawsuit against the feds if it didn’t happen. (It didn’t.) In February, state lawmakers backed away from the $14 million lawsuit, claiming they were optimistic the Trump administration would work it out. A curious position as Trump and his Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke have said they’re against such a move.

The long-stated argument for transfer in Utah has been money. The state can develop more ground and funnel needed dollars into the under-funded school system. Yet school funding is largely a state legislative decision. Utah spends the least amount of money on education of any state in the union: $6,555 per student in 2013, compared to the national average of $10,700 per pupil, all the while having one of the best overall state economic report cards in the country. Utah outranks most other states in nearly every economic growth metric.

After the Utah actions, the movement to transfer federal ground spread like wildfire across the West, Webster told me. “In 2013, Nevada created a task force to consider the merits of the idea, but state lawmakers lost their appetite for the concept in 2015,” he said. “That year we saw 37 bills in 11 states. Only six bills passed in four states. Lawmakers in Wyoming, Idaho, and Arizona tried again in 2016, but the bills died. The only place this kind of legislation has really taken hold is Utah.”

For a little perspective, consider the scale of federal lands in Utah. Uncle Sam manages two-thirds of the land inside the state boundary. (Only Nevada has more: 81 percent.) So how much better off would Utah be if it took ownership?

Short answer: not very.

A 2014 report by three Utah universities commissioned by the state government to understand the economics of the Public Land Transfer Act found that such a move would tie the state to the highly volatile energy market. The report found that management costs of all that public ground runs $280 million a year, offset by revenues totaling $331.7 million, $257 million of which from oil and gas royalties.

On the surface, that looks like a $51 million windfall, but there’s a huge rub. For the math to work, oil needs to trade at $92 a barrel. If oil fell to a low of $62 a barrel, the federal government would also have to transfer all its existing mining, oil and gas contracts. In other words: free money. In March 2017, oil was trading at around $52 a barrel.

Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, perhaps put it best earlier this year when he said, “If you’re a western governor and your budget is based on $60-per-barrel oil and suddenly the price drops to $40 per barrel, you’re going to have a huge hole in your budget. You have two choices: Go to your legislature and say, ‘Let’s raise taxes,’ or say ‘Let’s sell off some assets.’ And I think we all know what a western legislator is more likely to do.”

Despite the dismal economics of state ownership of federal lands, and the widespread public opinion in the West that it’s a bad idea, there are still sympathizers in Utah. A deep frustration and mistrust of big government shades every political discussion in Utah. Troy Justensen, president of the Utah-based Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife (SFW), echoed this in a recent phone call. While nearly every other group in the hunting industry has said federal land transfer would be a disaster for hunters, his organization has hedged. Justensen said he wants to see change, and if that means more state control, or total state control, it’s worth exploring—economics be damned.

“The position out here really stems from a frustration with the lack of management on federal land,” he said. “We don’t support the sale of federal lands. We told Chaffetz we don’t support his bill, and he dropped it. But if state control gives hunters a better deal, we’ll take it. We’re for a net zero loss of ground for hunters.”

How that would work he couldn’t say, but in SFW’s view the devil Utah knows is worse.

“I don’t believe it,” said Braxton McCoy, a Utah board member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Politicians advocating for state transfer in Utah are pandering to a very real anti-government sentiment here—they’re working votes—or they stand to benefit personally from it. There’s power or money in it for them.”

McCoy was born in southern Utah (“I grew up a cowboy”) and served with distinction in the U.S. Army before a suicide bomber in Iraq ended his soldiering. Told he would never walk again, McCoy spent the better part of decade in physical therapy, and now he can walk, ride a horse, and backpack hunt for deer and elk in the Pahvant Range near his home. Every chance he gets, he tells his neighbors and friends that state ownership of federal land would be a disaster. Many, he said, don’t believe him or just shrug.

“For a lot of guys around here, for the ranchers and cowboys, they hear about a change in government policy, or a new monument like Bear Ears, and they feel personally threatened,” he said. “They hear the story of one rancher who was shut down because of some government red tape and it’s a direct attack on who they are.”

McCoy brought up the Bunkerville Standoff. Cliven Bundy drew national attention in 2014 when he took up against the Bureau of Land Management in a grazing fee dispute. Bundy’s family has grazed cattle in the Gold Butte area of Nevada since the 1870s. He stopped paying the graze fee when the feds ordered him to restrict the periods his cattle roamed—to help protect the endangered desert tortoise.

“From his perspective, the legacy of his forefathers was threatened because of some dumb turtle,” McCoy said. “Now, here in Utah, people say the new national monument makes a pathway to a new national park, which wouldn’t allow grazing or hunting. It’s not true, but it scares the hell out of a lot of people.”

Ronald Reagan summed up this world view best when he told farmers that the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

While it’s easy to see why the small Utah ranchers would worry about their livelihood, what moneyed powers are pushing for a transfer at the highest levels of Salt Lake and Washington government is less clear.

If large portions of the American West go up on the auction block, only a small handful of people and groups probably have the capital and interest to bid. Some have pointed out that the Church of Latter Day Saints, which owns 235,000 acres in Utah and 678,000 acres in Florida (two percent of the state’s landmass), could make some very large buys. Or the Koch family, which supports a vast web of politicians advocating vocally for transfer. They own 460,000 acres in the West. Or Ted Turner (two million acres owned) or Chinese billionaires or a group of Texas oilmen who have bought up hundreds of thousands of acres in the last few years. No one can really say for sure, but it’s an equally dark fear expressed in conservation circles.

If knowing history prevents us from repeating it, we can say that transfer of federal lands to the states equates land sales. The original land grant that founded Utah deeded 7.5 million acres to the state. Today it holds 3.4 million. Nevada started with 2.7 million acres and now has around 3,000. All told, more than 64.2 million acres were originally granted to the western states and 25.4 million acres have been lost to sale. These transactions rarely make national headlines and 
often come down to a small handful of state-level bureaucrats. For example, a three-person land board in Oregon voted 2-1 in February to sell off Elliott State Forest. A sale of federal land requires an act of Congress.

If Utah Republicans get their way, that vote will come. So it’s on us, the great camo legion of American hunters, to let them know it’s a terrible idea. Bring it up with your buddies in camp, talk to your friends and co-workers, reach out to elected officials, and post about it online. Hunters successfully defeated Chaffetz’s first attempt to sell 3.3 million acres. We have to be ready to do it again, and again, until this noxious political wind blows over.

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