A Wilderness Society report [PDF] finds that since it gained statehood in 1896, Utah has liquidated more than 54 percent of the land originally granted to it. The state is ground zero of the radical "land takeover" movement, which seeks to reduce the federal estate by seizing national public lands for state control, or even selling them off to private landowners.
In recent years, a radical movement has migrated from state legislatures in the West to a national stage.
The "land takeover" fringe aims to dismantle our grand American system of protected lands, removing large swaths from the protective shield of federal agencies like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management so that they can be taken over by state governments--and potentially be sold to oil, mining and logging companies.
To do this, extremists are working to enact laws that require Congress to give millions of acres of public lands over to the states. Utah has been an ignominious pioneer in this vein. Politicians like Sen. Orrin Hatch, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and Gov. Gary Herbert are among the most outspoken proponents of measures that claw national public lands away from Americans at-large.
Recently, these have included an abortive bill that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of land, and even a fevered campaign to remove Bears Ears National Monument's protected status. The election of President Trump has only emboldened them. It is time to seriously confront this threat.
What's next on the auction block?
Such proposals are a clear threat to Our Wild public lands, and could lead to 'no trespassing' signs, or even destructive development, in spots once preserved in their natural state for all Americans. Lawmakers in Utah and elsewhere have tried to deflect criticism by claiming they just want to subject public lands to state control, but not sell them off; our report suggests we can't trust them. Once public lands become Utah's state trust lands, they are meant to generate revenue--period.
Highlights from the report:
Once categorized as Utah state trust lands, public lands are not truly public. They must be managed with an eye toward to generating revenue, with public access often taking a back seat to drilling, mining or development.
If Utah assumed control of public lands within its borders, the state would need to generate an additional $100 million per year to manage them. This would doubtlessly further encourage selling off land.
Of the original 7.5 million acres of trust lands granted to Utah when it became a state in 1896, more than 4 million acres—about 54%--is now in private ownership, including major archeological sites and wildlife habitat.
Utah is currently demanding that 31.2 million more acres of national forests, wildlife refuges and other national public lands be given to the state, at which point they would also be at risk of sell-off.
Notable examples of state lands bought up by private interests include Comb Ridge, a tract originally proposed for inclusion in Bears Ears National Monument since won at auction by a land speculator; and 9,000 acres in the wildlife-rich Book Cliffs leased for oil and gas development.
READ THE FULL REPORT BELOW OR DOWNLOAD
While elected officials in Utah pursue land takeover proposals with an unmatched zeal, general local opinion is much more ambivalent. In 2016, more Utah voters opposed giving the state control over public lands than supported it.
And though the conversion of public lands to state trust lands would seemingly be motivated by economic concerns, public lands already contribute tremendously to Utah's bottom line. Outdoor recreation is estimated to generate some $12 billion in consumer spending in the state each year, supporting 122,000 jobs—but none of that would count toward Utah's requirement that state lands generate revenue.
Even as Utah has witnessed firsthand the value of national public lands through a robust tourism and outdoor recreation economy that thrives alongside the boom and bust cycles of the oil, gas and mining industries, history shows that the state has failed public interests miserably as a landlord. Our report underscores the dangers of ignoring these examples and acceding to the land takeover movement.