This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In a March 1 opinion piece for The Salt Lake Tribune, Peter Metcalf, playing the role of the benevolent Lorax sent from the sky to save the people of Utah from themselves, attacked Gov. Gary Herbert and his "unholy alliance" with the Utah Legislature for supporting bills that would transfer ownership of federal public lands to the state. ("Herbert's unholy alliance hurts economy," Opinion.)
Opponents of these efforts employ classic bait-and-switch tactics with a false choice: Either the federal government calls the shots or we destroy public lands. Metcalf's argument is simple: If successful, there will be nothing to stop Evil Republicans from raping and pillaging public lands.
While the thought of the governor himself placing a drilling rig under the Delicate Arch might be an effective rallying cry for extreme environmentalists, it proves why you should never let pesky things like facts and research get in the way of a good (and scary) story.
The first problem with this argument is the underlying assumption that our bloated federal government is best suited to manage anything. A recent report estimates a $15.7 billion maintenance backlog on federally managed lands. Roads, campgrounds, and other basic facilities in our national parks are crumbling. Trusting the feds, as opposed to the "best managed state in the nation," is like hiring Bernie Madoff to manage your retirement investments from jail.
Next, Metcalf argues that any development of these lands will inevitably damage our iconic landscapes and destroy our thriving outdoor industry. Implicit in this argument is the incorrect assumption that all public lands are created equal. This may be difficult to imagine for those who only spend their time skiing in Park City and hiking in Moab, but we have millions of acres of Godforsaken lands that never see a single tourist and just happen to hold more energy resources than several Middle Eastern countries combined.
Conveniently omitted by opponents, the legislation in question specifically excludes Utah's pristine national parks and 33 designated wilderness areas. Admittedly, it's not nearly as exciting to debate about lands that look less like Scarlett Johansson and more like Roseanne Barr, but those are the facts.
Others argue these bills will damage ongoing negotiations with bureaucrats, but it's virtually impossible to imagine things getting worse. All too often the Lucy-like federal government has teed-up the public lands football while Utah officials, ever the Charlie Browns, end up flat on the grass wondering what just happened. Whether it is Grand Staircase, lease withdrawals, oil shale or uranium mining, every Democratic administration has proven willing to kick Utahns in the teeth to secure pandered votes.
So, why does it matter? The answer lies in the education of our children. While 38 states east of Utah control 95-99 percent of their lands, Utah can only generate vital tax revenues on an astonishingly low 35 percent of its land mass.
While it is no secret that Utah ranks dead last in per-pupil funding, the true disparity is striking. Despite spending close to 50 percent of the state's budget on education, it would take an additional $2.2 billion in annual spending just to reach the national average. Anyone interested in a 100 percent tax increase while trillions of dollars in resources remain locked up in barren areas of the state? I didn't think so.
At the beginning of his administration, Herbert promised to use every arrow in his proverbial quiver to solve the public lands dilemma. By asserting control over lands promised more than a century ago, Utah can responsibly develop resources at a time when our country is more desperate than ever to break its dependence on foreign oil. With an energy plan that wisely includes a robust emphasis on alternative energy and conservation, we can solve today's problems and prepare for future energy needs.
While protecting our unparalleled landscapes, solving our education crisis and responsibly preparing for the future might not be the post-Mayan apocalyptic Utah that Metcalf would like us to believe, it just happens to be the real Utah that the governor and our legislative leaders are delivering. With a little luck, we might just be able to have our cake and eat it, too.
Spencer Cox is a Sanpete County commissioner and co-chair of the Rural Partnership Board.