Climate

Utah’s Insanely Expensive Plan To Seize Public Lands

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Dixie National Forest, Utah.

A study released Monday by researchers at three Utah universities found that transferring national forests and other public lands to the state of Utah would cost taxpayers at least $280 million per year — a price tag that could only be paid if the state were able to increase drilling and mining, seize energy royalty payments that are owed to U.S. taxpayers, and, if energy prices remain low, raise taxes to pay for the shortfall.

The study fulfills a requirement of a 2012 Utah bill mandating the transfer of over 31 million acres of America’s public lands to the state of Utah. The study found that in order to raise the needed funds to manage national forests and other public lands, including taking over responsibility for fighting wildfires, the state would need to pursue “an aggressive approach to managing its mineral lease program,” that would only “be profitable for the state if oil and gas prices remain stable and high.”

“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, Policy Director at the Center for Western Priorities, said in a press release. “Rather than pushing their quixotic and ideological agenda, Utah’s lawmakers should be focused on workable solutions for Utah’s impressive system of national public lands.”

The nearly 800-page report explored a number of scenarios for the state to assume management of public lands, concluding that the only way that the plan would be “profitable” is if the state collects 100 percent of royalties from oil and gas development in the state, which are currently shared equally by the federal and state government. The study states that without the change in royalty allocation, which would add to the national debt and place a burden on U.S. taxpayers, “oil and gas revenues are not sufficient to cover the state’s total land management costs for at least two years after the transfer.”

If the state is unable to take U.S. taxpayers’ share of royalties, the state would be forced to look elsewhere for revenue to cover land management costs, including raising taxes and selling off prized lands to private companies.

In addition to “aggressive” oil and gas development and losses for U.S. taxpayers, the study also outlined other impacts of the plan, including job losses and increased danger of extreme wildfires. As a result of the transfer, the state would “lose access to key firefighting resources,” including “trained personnel, a fleet of aircraft, and other equipment available from federal agencies because they manage extensive lands in the state.” The state also currently “relies on the federal government for fire dispatch center and aviation support infrastructure.”

The study also points to the 5,000 jobs that federal land management agencies currently support, estimating that “the immediate impact of [enacting the legislation] would be the loss of approximately $149.8 million in federal payroll.”

Bill Dvorak, a public lands organizer with the National Wildlife Federation, expressed extreme concern for the loss of natural resources under the unlikely scenario proposed in the study.

“Sportsmen’s fears of losing important fish and wildlife habitat would become reality because ramped-up drilling and mining on public lands would be necessary to finance this wrongheaded scheme,” Dvorak said in a press release. “Even then, there’s no way Utah could afford to manage all those lands, so taxpayers would end up paying more for fewer services and the countryside that supports hunting, fishing and the rest of Utah’s $12 billion outdoor recreation economy would be damaged, closed off or sold to the highest bidder.”

Advanced by a small group of radical politicians, state proposals to seize national forests and other public lands have gained momentum in the West over the past few years. In addition to being unconstitutional, these proposals are unpopular with voters and would place an extreme burden on taxpayers.

Utah’s bill, passed in March 2012, mandated the transfer of American public lands to the state by December 31, 2014. Despite plans to sue the federal government for ownership, Attorney General Sean Reyes told the state’s Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands in August that he would not be ready to file a lawsuit by the deadline and had not yet chosen a legal strategy to pursue.

Regardless of the strategy chosen by the Attorney General, Utah’s own Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel noted that the bill has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional,” should it be litigated in federal court.

Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser.