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Some Utah lawmakers want to spend yet another $500,000 to study the economics of transferring public lands to the state.
This time the study would produce an analysis that proponents hope demonstrates what Utah schools among the most underfunded in the nation stand to gain should the state manage 31 million acres currently under federal control.
SB48, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, calls for an inventory of the natural resources on these lands, which state leaders want transferred to Utah pursuant to a law enacted three years ago. The federal government has refused to comply.
The Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands is awarding $2 million in state contracts to outside consultants to craft legal and lobbying strategies to accomplish the goals of the Transfer of Public Lands Act.
The state recently accepted a report, completed by university economists at a separate cost of $500,000, which concluded Utah may be able to afford the cost of managing the land, but only under a rosy scenario. Oil and gas prices would have to remain stable, production would have to increase and Utah would have to secure 100 percent of the royalties from existing federal leases. The report is silent on the possible need to divert the federal royalties Utah currently receives to cover land management costs.
In the meantime, Osmond believes more needs to be done to convince Utahns that it would be a good deal for the state to own national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.
"There isn't really a perception, especially in public education, of the potential benefit that this transfer would mean to the state," Osmond said. "We haven't quantified it for those most affected by it. Ironically, we see a lot of resistance from public educators and administrators who view this as just another fight against the federal government."
Utah already pulls in millions in royalties and bonuses associated with federal oil and gas leases, but leaders chose to spread that money around many areas of government.
Since 2006, the state has received far in excess of $100 million a year, and most of this money has gone to the Permanent Community Impact Fund and the Department of Transportation. Only 2.25 percent has gone to education, the same cut that goes to the Utah Geological Survey and the Water Research Laboratory, according to a 2013 report by the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office.
Still, Osmond contends the state should learn what exactly it is hoping to own.
The study envisioned in Osmond's bill would "quantify the amount of annual funding that could be generated for public education in the state, on a school district by school district basis, if the ownership of federal land is transferred to the state for management through a state land management administration."
The bill assumes the land would be put to the "best and most appropriate use," whether that's grazing, tourism, energy, logging, or mining, but it is unclear how that would be determined.
"It directs that this study be conducted by the latest technologies to keep costs down, aerial and GPS technologies that can come down to a 6-by-6-inch area and assess what that land can be used for," Osmond said.
The bill's critics said the proposed study duplicates the economics study. They also doubted whether it could provide reliable numbers since Utah has yet to figure out how and what resources would be exploited.
"It's almost a study in abstraction. Do we have enough certainty to study this in a meaningful way?" said Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville. "You can't presume revenue off there unless you know what the management strategy will be. We don't know how that entity will manage the land."
Hawkes joined three other committee members Monday in voting against the bill, which passed and is awaiting final action on the House floor.