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State leaders' quest to gain title to federal land and thousands of dirt tracks and roads amounts to "a wild goose chase" that squanders taxpayer money and could ultimately degrade the state's natural beauty, education advocates told a legislative committee last week.
"We don't believe these initiatives will solve our education funding issues. We fear they will distract our leaders from seeking realistic and lasting solutions. We are chasing after an imaginary unicorn," said Heather Bennett, a Salt Lake City school board member.
Should the state succeed in winning title to 30 million acres and 12,400 routes, the land could lose the scenic values that "make Utah a fabulous place for family recreation and renewal," she said.
The comments by Bennett, a co-founder of the new campaign called For Kids and Lands, were a blunt challenge to the Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee, whose leadership endorses lawsuits against the federal government in a bid to enable greater resource development on public lands.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, used the occasion to blast conservation groups that advocate greater landscape protection.
"You are wrong on this issue. These groups have an agenda and feed you misinformation. They don't care about your kids. I do," said Noel, among the state's leading critics of federal land management.
Backers of the state push to take title to federal land say the move is necessary to secure education funding for Utah, which ranks dead-last in per-pupil spending. Getting the state on par with the national average would take $2.6 billion.
That would require doubling the state income tax, which would wreck the economy, said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who authored the 2012 legislation demanding the land transfer.
The state has done a superior job generating revenue off state lands, backers say as proof that Utah is better suited to manage land than federal authorities.
"This is certainly not a wild goose chase. Funding education through our lands is something we can do," said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. "I don't know how we can generate revenue from state lands if we can't access them."