The policy was set and performance followed as state after state entered the Union, except for the 11 Western states. The first 38 states have, on average, only 4 percent of their lands in federal ownership versus more than 50 percent in Western states, including 65 percent in Utah. Why were the promises the same, but the performance different in the West?
Although Utah's 1894 Enabling Act is nearly identical to those of the states preceding it, some misinterpret Section 3: "That the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof." However, we need to read further: "… and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States."
Utah disclaimed title to unappropriated lands, just as the states preceding it, so the federal government would have clear title to dispose of the public lands. However, in the early 20th century, the federal government shifted to a policy of land retention and conservation. It was a reflection of the new "progressive" political and economic ideas which sought to create new public agencies to manage the lands.
This was not lost on the Utah Legislature in 1915 when it sent a resolution to Congress and the president: "The people of Utah view with alarm and apprehension the national tendency toward the curtailment of the former liberal policies in handling the public domain and disposing of the natural resources, as evidenced in the vast land withdrawals and the pending legislation."
Fast forward to 1976 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that "it is the policy of the United States that the public lands be retained in federal ownership; unless ... it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest."
Now we find ourselves today with 116 years of government entanglements and burdensome regulation on the public lands in Utah. It is why, in order to provide a fair, justified and equitable remedy for the federal government's past and continuing breaches of its solemn promises, as well as to provide for the sufficient and necessary funding of Utah's public education system, the Legislature is demanding the transfer of title to all public lands within its borders to the state, except national parks and congressionally designated wilderness.
The "Best Managed State in the Nation" can certainly manage our lands for conservation, access to open space, recreation, wildlife management, agriculture and responsible development of natural resources better than our federal landlord. We owe it to the children of Utah now and in the future to make this effort.
Roger E. Barrus, a Centerville Republican, represents District 18 in the Utah House of Representatives.