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Utah is lone cowboy trying to wrangle public lands

Published February 15, 2015 12:27 pm

Movement • Despite numerous invitations from Utah lawmakers, no other states have signed on.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder fears the national forests around her slice of Big Sky country will burn because of federal forest management policies.

Critics say the U.S. Forest Service keeps loggers at bay and fails to address threats to forest health. And the Republican lawmaker invokes wildfire fears to justify her efforts to take control of public lands from federal agencies and give it to the states.

"It's undeniable, the federal model of land management is failing Montana," said Fielder, who lives along a stretch of the Clark Fork River framed by the Cabinet and Coeur d'Alene mountains. She believes that 5 million acres in the nearby Lolo National Forest and others are poised to burn.



"Access is decreasing, risk of catastrophic wildfire is escalating and productivity for rural economic development is at an all-time low. It's dangerous out there," said Fielder, who has sponsored various bills designed to pave the way for state control of public lands. "The federal government has dropped the ball on public land management. That's why the states want to pick it up and run with it."

While Fielder and other conservative state lawmakers around the West have picked up on an idea spawned in Utah three years ago — wresting control of millions of acres of public lands away from federal land managers — no other state has signed up for the crusade.

Three years after Utah's passage of the Public Lands Transfer Act, no other Western state has enacted a similar law ordering the feds to hand the land over. Nor has any state asked to join an interstate compact the Legislature established in 2014 to advance the land transfer movement.

Utah appears to be going it alone — for now.

Legislative efforts across the West have varied widely.

Utah rushed headlong into battle, with Arizona right on its heels.

The Grand Canyon State's legislature passed a similar bill in 2013, but then-Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed it, arguing it went too far.

Arizona has a new Republican governor this year, Doug Ducey.

And the state's latest proposal, House Bill 2321, would demand title to all public lands in Arizona and impose state property taxes on any lands not transferred after a Dec. 31, 2016, deadline — a step further than Utah's bill, which excluded designated wilderness areas and national parks, and has no taxing provision.

The Arizona bill's sponsor, Rep. Brenda Barton, did not return phone messages.

Most states are more deliberative.

Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico lawmakers are pursuing resolutions urging Congress to transfer title or share revenue from public lands.

A Colorado proposal would retain "concurrent jurisdiction" over federal land.

Idaho and Montana have been notably more cautious in their approach to land transfer, proposing economic and feasibility studies before running legislation aimed at transfer.

Two years ago, the Idaho Legislature established a Federal Land Interim Committee, which wrapped up its tasks this month with a feasibility report. It recommended the Gem State monitor Utah's legal efforts, but not participate.

"Given the similarities in the state enabling acts and Idaho's Constitution, Idaho should let Utah take the lead in litigation of the issues and assess later whether litigation is a good option," the report states.

In December, a University of Idaho study found that turning 16.4 million acres over to Idaho would cost the state $111 million a year. That number is based on an average wildfire year and doesn't include the millions needed for the transition.

The only way Idaho could cover the costs would be to increase logging to record levels — a billion board feet a year.

And while Montana has kicked the tires of the land-transfer bandwagon, state leaders have yet to officially climb aboard the bus driven by Utah.

"This issue has divided the Republican party here," said Martin Nie, a University of Montana professor of natural resource policy. "You have a hunting constituency that has had a lot of concerns and it's been framed as possible privatization."

Despite those fits and starts, the movement continues.

Conservative lawmakers have tapped into a thread that runs throughout the West. Resentment toward federal oversight dates back generations and recent history is littered with numerous failed efforts by local communities to "take back" public land.

The strain even crosses the Mississippi. Lawmakers in a few eastern states are dipping a toe in the cause.

This year, legislatures in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Virginia will consider resolutions supporting Western land-transfer efforts.

But attempts to gauge public support for the idea do not track with Western legislators' efforts.

Recent polling indicates Utahns and other Westerners cherish public lands. By huge margins, they believe the lands belong to all Americans, rather than to the people of each state, according to a survey released last week by Colorado College.

A team of bipartisan pollsters surveyed residents across a six-state region that stretched from Arizona to Montana. Ensuring public lands are available for grazing and mineral extraction did not poll nearly as well as conserving wildlife habitat and natural areas for future generations.

Such findings don't square with the rhetoric of land-transfer proponents, who say Westerners are fed up with federal regulations and shifting policies that unnecessarily obstruct use of huge publicly owned swaths. They argue rural communities suffer because cattlemen, loggers, drillers and miners don't enjoy the access they once had to public lands.

Critics of land transfer, on the other hand, see the strategy as a veiled campaign to sweep aside federal environmental protection laws and ramp up drilling and logging on the West's public lands. They also contest the facts land-transfer champions cite to illustrate federal failures.

In Montana, for instance, logging in national forests is taking place, but under a more collaborative approach than in the past, according to Brian Sybert of the Montana Wilderness Association.

"We have a system that works. We just need to fund it," Sybert said. "We came to a point after 30 years of timber wars where people are willing to work together to identify where logging should occur. Why not empower that as opposed to taking on this grand experiment and breaking the Forest Service and heading into a place that could be brittle with peril?"

Forest Service officials did not know which 5 million acres Sen. Fielder argues are at risk of catastrophic wildfire, but they have identified that much acreage in Montana national forests as "priority landscapes" in need of restoration logging.

Last year the Forest Service met its harvest targets on those lands and intends to increase the targets to 310 million board feet this year, according to David Smith, a spokesman for the agency's Northern Region office in Missoula. Smith said the Montana partnerships are ongoing and the regional managers are "working closely with Idaho to develop solutions that will accelerate the pace of restoration."

There's an apparent disconnect between what is happening in regional forest management — and the revenues raised — and the expectations of land transfer proponents.

Idaho, Oregon and Montana may have lots of timber, Nie points out, but they lack the energy and mineral resources to enable a land transfer to pencil out economically.

The University of Montana professor says a better option for those states would be to collaborate with local and federal entities on land management, rather than fight each other.

And so Utah stands alone.

Under legislation sponsored last year by Orem Republican Rep. Keven Stratton, the state established an interstate compact "to study, collect data, and develop political and legal mechanisms for securing the transfer to the respective member states of certain specially identified federally controlled public lands within the respective member state boundaries."

No state has joined, although Arizona's legislature has a compact bill in the works.

This session, Stratton is sponsoring HB132, which would create a funding mechanism for the compact, enabling countries and organizations to contribute to the cause, even though they would have no say in its activities.

Stratton did not respond to the Tribune's interview requests.

While land transfer is a red meat issue for many Western Republicans, critics blast it as "quixotic" and "unconstitutional." And many legal scholars agree.

Earlier this month, the University of Utah law school's Wallace Stegner Center released a white paper arguing that the land transfer drive could mean less public access and engagement, but also could undermine efforts to reform public land management.

Law professors John Ruple and Bob Keiter fear Utah will be forced to accelerate energy development to foot the huge costs associated with managing its 31 million acres of federal public lands. Paying the bill could mean charging for hunting access and cutting the public out of decision making.

"Even if it starts with the best intentions, the economics can drive it to a very dark place," Ruple said, noting a recent U.-led economic analysis which found that the land transfer would bind Utah to an aggressive oil and gas drilling program.

Ruple noted Utah's economic analysis ignored the infrastructure necessary to manage the land — including buying equipment, renting offices, hiring and training a workforce and grading roads. Those up-front costs would run into untold millions of dollars, Ruple says, yet few land transfer advocates have talked about them.

More than a month after the state's deadline for the federal government to transfer the land, Utah still lacks both the physical means and a legal framework for managing the acreage.

The state established a Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands, but that panel appears more interested in litigation and lobbying than stewardship. Armed with a $2 million appropriation, the commission is preparing to hire outside lawyers to help craft a legal strategy for accomplishing the land transfer.

And Stratton is asking lawmakers for an additional $1 million this year to help cover the bill.

Back in Montana, Sen. Fielder is sponsoring legislation to prepare a feasibility study and to prohibit the state from selling any land it acquires from a federal transfer. The latter bill is aimed at deflecting allegations that transfer is a step toward privatizating the land.

But in a committee meeting last week, state officials said such a prohibition would violate state laws and thwart effective land management.

Montana conservation groups are staging a rally Monday in Helena protesting what they call Fielder's plan to "seize" public lands. They also are submitting a petition to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, a vocal land-transfer skeptic who is scheduled to address the rally.

"We won't tolerate being evicted from the places that sustain our outdoor way of life," said television host Randy Newberg. "This is about protecting our outdoor heritage, what makes us who we are as Montanans."

bmaffly@sltrib.com

 

 

 

 

 

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