Why Does Utah Want To Sell Off Public Lands?

Why Does Utah Want To Sell Off Public Lands?

Illustration by Sean Delonas

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."

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