A comprehensive 784 page study released Monday by the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University, in conjunction with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, says Utah will be left with a hefty price tag if some lawmakers’ plan to takeover public lands is successful.
The study was prompted by the passage of HB 142 in 2013, sponsored by Representative Roger Barrus (Republican – Centerville) and carried by Senator Ralph Okerlund (Republican – Monroe) in the Senate. The law directed the state to investigate all aspects of a potential transfer of public lands at a cost to citizens of $450,000—small potatoes given the study’s findings of the cost to the state if it succeeds in forcing the transfer.
Being public land, it is owned by the United States and its citizens as a whole rather than just the citizens of the state. Lawmakers have argued that this takes too much control away from the state while supporters of the current system note that Utah’s lands are national treasures that are worthy of national protection.
Currently, 64.5 percent of all land in Utah is public land and is primarily located in central and southern Utah as well as along the state’s mountain ranges. This public land totals 31.2 million acres, and the maintenance of it employs 2,100 people. Furthermore, the study found that an estimated $247 million is spent annually to maintain these lands at a cost of roughly $8 per acre per year.
The study also revealed that injections of money by the federal government for the public land directly supports an additional 5,000 jobs, which generate $236.2 million in earnings for individual Utah residents. The end result for the state as a whole? Not only are all of the costs of maintaining the land made up, but the state makes $15.8 million in revenue annually, and local municipal governments make and additional $1.4 million annually.
But, according to the study, all of those benefits would be wiped out if Utah succeeds in taking over land management—with a $280 million annual price tag, $23 million more than what is currently spent by the federal government. Furthermore, the state would see an immediate loss of nearly $150 million in federal payroll dollars being spent in the state.
Nearly 35 percent of these costs would go to wildfire management, an area many on Utah’s capitol hill have decried as lax already. With a transfer from federal to state lands, and the jobs associated therein, the study notes that the state would lose access to trained personnel, an aircraft fleet to fight fires from above, and light and heavy equipment to fight on the ground.
Currently, the federal government is able to take advantage of bulk purchases as well as the ability to move equipment across state lines with relative ease.
But, the study goes on to say, the land transfer could be profitable for the state, but only if oil prices stay above $62 a barrel and only if Utah doubles its royalty revenue share (taxes) on energy companies from 50 to 100 percent—requiring Congress to agree to forgo their 50 percent of the royalties on new energy development on these lands. Higher costs of oil and natural gas alone would not be enough to sustain the lands—the only way the state could maintain lands at current levels is if the state takes more from private oil companies. In addition, ranchers could be forced to pay higher grazing fees to make up the difference, from the current $1.35 per grazing animal each month to between $4.22 and $7.34.
A land transfer could also benefit public schools, the study found, but to what extent is not well known. One source of education funding in Utah comes from the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). SITLA lands are peppered across the state, making it difficult to sell the plots to interested buyers who have to deal with other private owners and the federal government to access purchased land. A land transfer, the study noted, would allow SITLA to more easily develop resources that, in turn, would provide greater funding for schools.
Utah might be able to afford the takeover (which the state is currently mounting a massive and expensive lawsuit to do) if the state significantly expands the amount of oil and gas drilling and mining on the public lands. However, that could come at the cost of tourism and recreation, which currently provides 29,000 jobs to Utahns and generates $1.6 billion in citizen’s earnings, $788 million in tax revenue, and contributes $3.6 billion to the state’s gross production. The study also adds that recreation on the public lands as-is generates approximately $16.9 billion, with non-resident spending approaching nearly $10 billion.
In short, the study found, Utah could afford to take over federal lands under a very specific set of circumstances. However, it would severely stretch the state’s budget, potentially risk highly lucrative tourism and recreation dollars and jobs, and force hard decisions on other funding priorities as the state is forced to pay for the numerous new costs it would have to shoulder.