Feds don't owe Utah
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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 attempting to acquire federal lands within its borders, the State of Utah reneges on an agreement made in the earliest days of the Republic.

In 1787, the 13 states had two problems — Revolutionary War debts and conflicting claims to western lands. Both Maryland and Virginia had land claims extending to the Pacific Ocean, including what is now Utah. A commission was formed; compromise was reached: All war debt shifted to the federal government.

In exchange, each state would cede Western land claims to the central government. Territory acquired with the common blood and treasure of the states would be held by the United States for common good. Twenty-nine states expended lives and money warring with Mexico for most of the Southwest, including Utah. When Utah became a state it ceded territorial claims to the federal government, just as Virginia and Maryland had done 111 years earlier.

Utah's argument to acquire 31 million acres of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land comes down to this: Federal land does not contribute to property tax revenue. And Utah is hurt economically by a paucity of state and private land available for development, and therefore Utah cannot adequately fund its schools.

Instead of property tax, the Unites States makes payments in lieu of taxes. In 2010 Utah received $34.7 million PILT dollars, or about $1.11 per acre of federal land. If on the tax rolls, most federal land would be assessed as unimproved grazing land and taxed at 14 cents per acre.

Within Utah, there are about 14 million acres of private land and 3.5 million acres of State Institutional Trust Land. Utah has more state and private land than 10 states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey. Massachusetts has just 1.3 state and private acres for each person.

Utah enjoys six state and private acres per person. If California were a country, it would have the eighth largest economy in the world. California manages this feat with only 1.6 acres of state and private land per person.

It is wrong to assume federal lands are off limits to development. There are programs making federal land available to state and local governments at low or no cost. Rights of way are provided for highways, water systems and other infrastructure without the usual rental fees. Airports across the West are on land that was provided at no cost for that purpose, including portions of the new St. George Airport.

The state and counties acquire land for parks, campgrounds, shooting ranges, sewage lagoons and other public purposes for $10 an acre under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act.

The federal government develops federal land to the benefit of the state as well. Oil and gas, coal and potash mines, timber sales, sand and gravel quarries and livestock grazing are commercial activities on federal lands. Proceeds from leases, sales, royalties on minerals and grazing permits are shared with the state. The infrastructure and facilities the industry places on public land are subject to property tax.

Utah ranks last in per-pupil expenditure in education. A lack of state and private land available to help fund the schools is not to blame. States with less private land and less private land per capita fund their education systems better than does Utah.

Available land base is simply not a limiting factor to funding our public schools. Utah covets the public lands, but when state elected officials say they are doing it for the kids they are simply being dishonest.

Dennis Willis retired after 35 years of service with the Forest Service and BLM. A Price resident, he is president of the River Management Society, is a consultant on land-use planning and serves on the boards of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and the USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum. Email: willis-works@emerytelcom.net