Study: Utah could manage federally controlled land

The federal government controls slightly more than 63 percent of the land in Utah. A taxpayer-funded study is underway on the economics of the state managing that land instead. Photo courtesy Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah could afford to manage more than 30 million acres of public land within its borders if the state somehow took control of the property from federal agencies, according to a state report released Monday.

The 800-page economic study shows it would cost Utah nearly $300 million to take over the land, but Utah could pay that with oil and gas leases.

The study, which cost about $550,000, is part of the state’s push to gain control of 31.2 million federally controlled acres.

Utah’s Republican governor and legislators argue local officials would be better land managers than the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. They passed a 2012 law demanding the federal government hand over the land by 2015.

There’s no indication the government would agree to such a transfer, and critics argue the state has no legal claim to the land if the state sues for control.

Conservation groups said Monday that while the land grab is unlikely to succeed, the report shows such a move would be reckless and threaten natural treasures.

“Today’s report is yet more evidence that plans to seize control of national public lands in Utah are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to increase the pace and scale of oil and gas development at great expense to taxpayers and the state’s renowned natural wonders,” Greg Zimmerman, with the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.

West Jordan Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the 2012 land transfer act, said critics have long argued Utah cannot afford to manage the land.

“Clearly that’s not the case,” Ivory said Monday. “This study shows clearly we can afford to do it, and not only can we afford to manage our land, we can deal with a lot of the other issues that provide a balanced public land policy and management.”

The report looks only at hypothetical costs and benefits of state control. It does not address how Utah might gain ownership of the land, which is five times the amount of property the state currently manages.

Managing the additional land would cost Utah about $280 million in 2017, the first year the report assumes it could manage to gain control.

About $80 million a year would be spent on wildfires, and Utah would lose access to federal resources such as fire-suppression aircraft. Utah could cut costs by harvesting forests for timber and requiring homeowners to install fire-safe landscaping, according to the study.

State control may bring a marginal increase in money for Utah public schools, but the report estimates the net gain would not likely be more than 5 percent of what the state currently spends on public education.

The land Utah seeks to control generated $331.7 million dollars during the 2013 fiscal year, with about 93 percent of that from mining oil, gas and coal.

Right now, the state gets 50 percent of the revenue from oil and gas leases on that land. To cover the costs of managing millions of additional acres, Utah would need to negotiate for 100 percent of oil and gas revenue.

If Utah keeps that revenue, oil and gas prices remain high, and the state increases drilling, Utah could make nearly $390 million in 2017 and $1.15 billion by 2035, according to the report.

One area that would see new energy extraction is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, which has drawn the ire of local officials since its designation in 1996.

While Utah’s land demand excludes national parks, wilderness areas and most national monuments, the roughly 3,000-square mile Grand Staircase monument has drawn local ire since its designation in 1996. The monument designation protected paleontological treasures, buttes and canyons but closed off development of coal reserves underground.

The new public lands study assumed that if the state gained control of the monument, Utah likely would open those coal reserves for mining.

Economists from the University of Utah, Utah State University and Weber State University are scheduled to present it to lawmakers at a Wednesday meeting at the state Capitol.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!