This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The bill to expand Utah's test range for the new stealth fighter has a little stealthiness itself.
Rep. Chris Stewart this month introduced legislation (HR 4579) that codifies an expansion of the Utah Test and Training Range west of the Great Salt Lake and extending down into Juab County. Air Force officials have said the 700,000-acre expansion is needed for testing and training on the F-35, the new fighter jet at Hill Air Force Base.
But the bill goes beyond the borders of the test range to give Box Elder, Tooele and Juab Counties easements to hundreds of roads the counties have claimed, essentially bypassing the lawsuits in federal court over the legitimacy of those claims.
There is no military reason whatsoever to include the easements. Their presence is simply an attempt to slip in a reward for the counties, perhaps as compensation for the fact that the bill will result in more federal land in the counties.
The bill necessarily includes a land swap of School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration parcels inside the test range for other federal parcels elsewhere in the state. The parcels that SITLA would get under the bill are not in those counties, but they would be more profitable than the lands in the test range, which only bring in a few thousand dollars in grazing fees. The new parcels have more mineral potential, including land where an existing Millard County limestone quarry could expand, adding both jobs to the county and royalties to SITLA, which sends its income on to Utah schools.
Some of those new SITLA lands would be on or near lands that have been considered of wilderness quality by the BLM, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance points out. SITLA maintains the land is not wilderness, and the trades were unanimously endorsed in a resolution by the Utah Senate this week.
No doubt there could be a better public process than a test-range bill for deciding land exchanges miles away from the test range, but the real sleight of hand here is the granting of hundreds of miles of road easements across federal lands. The claims are based on a 19th century law that was rescinded 40 years ago, and the counties are among 20 Utah counties that have filed federal lawsuits over the claims.
Those suits should play out in court, or the issue should be negotiated away, instead of being short-circuited by a congressional bill. Stewart's colleagues, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, have embedded something similar in their Public Lands Initiative bill, and it shouldn't be there, either.
The test-range bill should be about the test range, not flying a public-lands agenda under the radar.