Utah is a beautiful state – much more so than I give credit. But I’m not an outdoors guy so even when I drive the state I’m not really looking at my surroundings in awe. Most of the time I think to myself, why would anyone want to live out here? I also prefer the greenery of the east coast and deep south – oh, and beaches. So when I drive through Price and across I-70 all I see is lunar landscape. It also makes me wonder why water projects aren’t a higher priority for Utah. Nevertheless, despite my quest for objectivity, my geographic prejudices and preferences most assuredly influence my views on environmental and public lands policies.
I have long supported the transfer of public lands from federal to state control. I support all of the resolutions and appropriations passed by the state Legislature to pursue transfer, and I appreciate the efforts of Congressman Rob Bishop at the federal level and Governor Gary Herbert to coax the federal government into some acceptable agreement.
But there is a lot of opposition to the transfer of public lands. An anti-lands advocacy group, Western Priorities, is celebrating the fact that the transfer movement hasn’t really caught on among western states. It released a <a href=”http://westernpriorities.org/2016/06/01/new-analysis-outside-of-utah-efforts-to-seize-american-public-lands/” target=”_blank”>document</a> showing that western states had introduced 22 bills related to public land transfers last legislative session and, of the 22, only six passed – five of them in Utah. In other words, the transfer of public lands movement has lost its steam.
One of the reasons for its failure to date is not uncommon among high stakes, high emotion politics – the zeal of advocates tends to get ahead of popular will. We saw this happen over school vouchers. School choice advocates here in Utah regretfully chose to ignore popular will and instead chose to politicize their cause, from the top down, through the state Legislature. They managed to eek out a one-vote majority only to be contradicted overwhelmingly by voters when they had a say. Some of us, at the time when this top-down strategy was developed, advocated for a different approach that recognized the need to educate the public before pressing for legislative action. Alas, there was little patience for that approach.
Four or five years ago, a thoughtful strategy on transferring western public lands back to the states was attempted. We would work from the ground up – meeting with elected officials and community leaders across the western states in a painstaking process to gain popular support. Another effort by State Representative Ken Ivory plowed some heavy legal ground but, it seems, got bogged down on several legislative fronts. These efforts are very fragile, time consuming and expensive. Laying the groundwork for any major political effort, let alone the effort to transfer public lands, requires great patience not commonly associated with controversial issues.
A big hurdle to overcome in the public lands fight is public attention. The only time the public really pays relevant attention to and interest in the transfer of lands is when we face huge problems like wild fires. Otherwise, their attention focuses naturally on preserving national parks and monuments – which are not even a part of the transfer idea. So, unless there is a huge wild fire to showcase how inept and irresponsible federal management is, transfer advocates have nary a leg to stand on to sway the public.
Meanwhile, under federal management, Utah continues to get the short end of the stick. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) <a href=”http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865655440/EPA-requires-Utah-coal-plants-to-cut-emissions-causing-haze-in-national-parks.html?pg=all” target=”_blank”>just announced</a> that a couple of coal-fired power plants will need $600 million in new pollution controls to reduce the “haze” in our parks and monuments. Rocky Mountain Power, that controls these plants, has a less expensive plan to achieve the same results but the EPA killed it and the company is now looking at <a href=”http://www.sltrib.com/news/3955884-155/rocky-mountain-power-weighs-legal-options” target=”_blank”>a lawsuit</a>. The overreach by the EPA and the threatened lawsuit don’t accomplish anything constructive.
Why are we letting impatient zealots on both sides determine this issue? Congressman Rob Bishop gets criticized from the right for being too deliberative and inclusive as he negotiates protections and transfers. Governor Herbert also gets slammed from the right for valuing process over politics. I get that there is a lot at stake for Utah in the transfer of public lands, but that is precisely why we should be careful to measure twice and cut once. Wing nuts who advocate for an immediate and violent takeover of federal lands only hurt the cause.
In the matter of the transfer of public lands, advocates of these transfers should – for once in their lives – be patient and put their trust in the people we’ve elected in Utah to work in our behalf.
I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.