We start the 2017 “Flagged Bills” series with Representative Keven Stratton (Republican – Orem) taking the helm on the legislature’s annual attempt to chase windmills: a public lands “take back.”
Despite a 784 page study stating that a land transfer would cost the state $280 million annually; that, among other things, oil would have to be sold at $62 a barrel and that the state would need to double royalty revenue shares in order to possibly be profitable (as of December 12, oil was trading at $52 a barrel); that the Utah Attorney General’s Office has told lawmakers that a lawsuit against the federal government is a “tough case” to win; that the lawyers being paid $1,754 an hour are the only ones outside of the GOP caucus that feel a lawsuit is winnable and yet refuse to release information to the public on how $14 million in public funds are being spent; that some lawmakers are financially benefiting from the public land’s fight; and that Utah’s own Enabling Act states that “the people inhabiting [Utah] do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof…remain subject to the disposition of the United States”; Stratton still feels that it is wise to propose HCR 1 – Concurrent Resolution on Public Lands Litigation.
Despite what the resolution may say, this legislation is not an example of Utah being “one of the best-managed states in the nation,” rather it is the example of foolhardy politicians who are taking an anti-federal government ideology to dogmatic extremes.
Frustrated at the state’s (read: Attorney General’s Office) desire not to spend time and money on a losing battle that the state’s own founding documents say we can’t fight, Stratton is declaring in HCR 1 that the AG’s office should “pursue all means of legislative and legal efforts to secure the transfer and control of public lands within the state of Utah…[and, if necessary petition] the United State Supreme Court…no later than December 1, 2017 [to do so].
The resolution, in an attempt to justify itself, takes great pains to ignore reality. The crux of the resolution asserts that Utah is not treated equally when compared to other states in regards to controlling the lands within its borders – pointing out that, in short, states east of the Rockies have much less federal land within their borders when compared to those west of the Rockies.
In fairness to the resolution, this is true, more than 60% of Utah’s land is under federal control; compare that to many eastern states with 15% or less of their land under federal control and it is easy to say that the states are inherently treated differently. But this viewpoint ignores history, migration patterns, geography, federal law before and after statehood, and territorial agreements created in order to receive statehood.
To put it bluntly, we have this system because we agreed to it – the State of Deseret was under no obligation to join the union but agreed to do so with the specific condition that the feds would control a large portion of the land.
One of the reasons we chose to become “Utah” was because we had more land than it knew what to do with and needed help defending it. The US, for its part, got a little manifest destiny out of the deal, and everyone was happy(ish) at the outcome. With a hyper-concentrated population and 19th-century technology that couldn’t tap into (or even care about) various natural resources, freshly minted Utahns were happy to sign on the dotted line.
In short, we did it to ourselves.
“But those laws are antiquated! All the more reason to fight them!” I hear you scream. Though this seems rational, the practical reality is that a court, especially the Supreme Court, will be asked the question “is the current agreement violating the equal footing doctrine?” As we agreed to the situation, the answer will most likely be no. Similar conclusions were made by the Attorney General’s office, which is why they have chosen not to pursue a lawsuit. Granted, we will most likely have a new, conservative justice on the Court by the time a lawsuit makes it that far, however it is still a risky proposition.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Utah will now have to pay to manage the land. This will mean that the state either sells land to developers and industry, raises taxes, and/or cuts services.
Yes, goals, missions, ideologies, and attitudes have changed over the years; and, yes, the Utah we see today could be very different had different rules, laws, and decisions went different ways. But this does not mean that the current system is good or bad – it just is. What we do know is that the current system allows Utah to put itself on display for all the world to be envious of.
Our lands are our heritage, and once they are sold or sullied, we will never get them back. The state would not be able to “ensure appropriate conservation, secure public access, encourage multiple use, grow the economy and sustain proper management” better than the federal government (as the resolution asserts), it would just do it differently. There is no guarantee that the state is inherently better or worse at this, all we know is that the state would have to make tougher economic decisions regarding selling and/or maintaining of the land when compared to the federal government.
Despite what the resolution may say, this legislation is not an example of Utah being “one of the best-managed states in the nation,” rather it is the example of foolhardy politicians who are taking an anti-federal government ideology to dogmatic extremes. This pursuit is not only lining the pockets of some politicians, it is wasting valuable state resources. The icing on the cake is the fact that if the state is somehow successful, they will sell our heritage, our history, our culture, and our identity to the highest bidder – and that loss is far greater than any perceived slight from the federal government.
To contact Representative Stratton, click here or call 801-836-6010 (Home).
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