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'Values of the resource' is focus of Utah lawmaker's plan for managing 31 million acres of coveted public land

Published February 10, 2016 12:31 pm

31 million acres • If the state succeeds in taking over federal lands, public would have a major say in their development, Kanab Republican says.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Rep. Mike Noel wants to assure land-transfer critics that Utah's quest to gain title to 31 million acres of public land will not result in the sale or development of these lands without ample opportunities for the public to have a say.

To that end, he's introduced HB276, a "mission plan" for how these lands will be administered if and when the state prevails in an anticipated lawsuit against the feds.

Critics say such a suit, expected to cost Utah taxpayers $14 million, has no chance, but that's not deterring the Kanab Republican from developing a rough statutory framework to guide decision-making on how these lands will be used.



"It doesn't get into all the details. It's going to be multiple use and sustained yield. There will be some areas that have exclusive uses," he said on The Salt Lake Tribune's online video chat TribTalk. "It's to give the public some comfort and start the discussion."

His Utah Public Land Management Act describes a structure ensuring that "resources are best utilized in the combination that will meet the present and future needs of the citizens of Utah ... and harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources without permanent impairment of the productivity of the land and the quality of the environment with consideration being given to the relative values of the resource."

Noel's aim is to fulfill what he sees as the failed promises of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, the 1976 statute that provides local communities a degree of influence in how surrounding public lands are to be administered.

Also introduced last week was a bill that would set up an account to receive funds to go toward the legal fight to win the land. Sponsored by Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, HB287 would create the "Public Lands Litigation Restricted Account" to receive private donations, funds from other state agencies and legislative appropriations. It would be managed by the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands.

Under Noel's bill, public lands ceded by the federal government would be administered by a newly created Division of Land Management within the Department of Natural Resources.

"This is a new area for DNR. They have state sovereign lands which are minimal," Noel said.

Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which manages 4 million acres deeded to Utah at the time of statehood for the purpose of supporting schools, may serve as a management model, Noel said.

"Utah does a good job of managing the land, much better than the federal government. That's the direction people who support this bill want to go," he said.

For his TribTalk interview, Noel holstered the incendiary rhetoric he often unleashes when he criticizes Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service oversight of Utah's public lands, which he says insults multiple-use mandates and strangles local economies.

Harsh language was, however, on display at the Jan. 22 "listening session" hosted by Utah Rep. Chris Stewart where Noel predicted BLM practices will lead to violence and further local resentment of federal oversight.

"What is going on in Utah has to be stopped. You are the men we have elected to stop that. Without your help, without your support, without your recognition of what's happening, there will be bloodshed," Noel told Stewart and congressional colleagues Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. "People will not be pushed against a wall, they will not have their lands taken from them, their rights taken from them. Their access their rights as citizens of this state, I see it coming now. It's the worst I've ever seen in the 40 years I've lived in this area. I represent 10 counties. Every one is impacted by an entity that doesn't represent me. It doesn't represent any of those citizens. They are here under false colors, they are here under false jurisdiction."

Those remarks drew fire by critics who say talk about bloodshed further inflames feelings against BLM employees, which were already fevered following the takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge from anti-federal militants.

Four days after the meeting, police killed one of the occupiers while arresting the leaders.

On Tuesday, Noel said he was specifically referencing the death of an unarmed young African-American man several years ago at the hands of BLM officers in Nevada, which he described as an "execution." He said his remarks were directed at BLM law enforcement officers, who he believes have no business enforcing state laws or patrolling without deference to local law enforcement.

"The situation in my district is very, very tense. We have federal law enforcement outside their jurisdiction," Noel told TribTalk moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce. "They are not trained to do it, they are not equipped to do it, and we don't want them to do it. We want our county sheriffs to do it."

A key goal of Noel's bill would be to restore elected sheriffs' status as the top law-enforcement figure in Utah counties.

A fiscal note attached to the bill indicates its provisions would not have an impact on the state's finances. It predicts that revenues to the state would increase between $102 million and $127 million. The lower figure presumes oil prices at $38 a barrel and natural gas at $1.97 per thousand cubic feet, and current levels of activity remaining the same. Oil is currently selling below $30.

The fiscal note pegs the cost of administering the land at between $125 million and $275 million. The lower figure represents the $4 SITLA spends per acre, while the higher one reflects the $8.80 the federal government spends per acre.

"The total expenditures, however, may be higher or lower, depending on number of unpredictable variables," the note states.

Land-transfer critics contend Utah will be forced to sell millions of acres because it won't be able to foot the bill of managing them, especially in times of low commodity prices. The feds spend tens of millions on fire suppression, for example, a cost that would have to be borne by Utah taxpayers.

But Noel and other transfer champions say privatizing the land is not on the table.

"We would have to put up two-thirds majority to sign off on selling. There are areas in my district that are absolutely fantastic. We want people to have access to them. The guarantees would be to set up super hurdles," he said. "We might have to sell off some lands. We will make that hurdle big enough for the public to weigh in. My constituents are worried about their hunting rights, their grazing rights. We have to make sure we protect pre-existing rights they have under federal management."

Noel acknowledged Utah has many places that must be conserved for their scenic and natural values.

"They are sacred to me, too," he said. "It's not a drill rig on every piece of ground. I don't see that happening."

His bill spells out a policy goal of keeping the land in state ownership and managed in a manner that would "protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource and archaeological values."

Every parcel would be managed to promote at least one of these uses: grazing; fish and wildlife; mineral extraction; rights-of-way; recreation; and timber.

DNR would develop resource management plans with public involvement. The director would be required to report to the Legislature on any program or policy decision that shuts down one of the principal uses of a tract greater than 1,000 acres for two or more years.

The bill recognizes "casual use" that would be allowed for the purposes of activities like gathering of firewood and other organic products, camping, collecting rocks and building stone. DNR would specifically be barred from closing public land to hunting, trapping and fishing, except for limited time periods for pubic safety.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly

 

 

 

 

 

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