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Utah's conservative think tank, the Sutherland Institute, recently pounded its chest while trumpeting the good news that a statistical report by the National Association of State Park Directors shows states are better at managing their parks than the federal government.

And to back it up, the report touted the astonishing number of visitors to state parks and the deft way those facilities handled the onslaught.

There was only one problem with the Sutherland Institute report: It wasn't true.

Sutherland, which has a bit of a history of stepping in it when it comes to issuing studies and analyses to back up its causes, has aligned itself with the movement in the west to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and hand it over to state and local governments, or private interests.

One of the arguments against that idea is that state and local governments don't have the resources to manage the lands the way the feds can.

Well, that argument was debunked by the report Sutherland issued, in partnership with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), another friend of the land grab movement, that showed the enormous burden state parks could withstand with all those visitor.

Sutherland and PERC, citing figures from the National State Park Directors Association's annual report, claimed that Utah state parks saw 35.6 million visitors between 2012 and 2013 and New Mexico state parks saw 44.6 million visitors during that time.


Actually, the association's report says Utah state parks received 3.5 million visitors and New Mexico state parks received 3.8 million.

When Sutherland sent out a release about the good news for state control, some news agencies bit — hook, line and sinker — and reported the story with the faulty numbers. (Sutherland's Matthew Anderson wrote a Tribune op-ed with the errant numbers. It was corrected after Sutherland pointed out the error.)

After it was pointed out to Sutherland that its statistics were wrong, the think tank issued a second report without those numbers, but still hyping the claim the states can do it better.

The report noted that state parks in Utah have 23.5 visitors per acre [it originally had 236 visitors per acre until that error was pointed out as well] compared to five visitors per acre in the national parks of the 11 western states.

The problem with that comparison is that the national parks have many times the acreage of the state parks, so while national parks may have more visitors, they would have less per acre because of so many more acres to cover.

"The latest report from the Sutherland Institute and PERC draws conclusions on America's public lands based on inaccurate data that inflated Utah State Park visitation numbers by an order of magnitude. The phony data are now being used to argue for disposing of American public lands into state and private hands," said Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities.

"We can't know whether these groups were merely negligent and accidentally released a report with bad data, or whether the group is purposefully trying to mislead the public," he added. "Either way, this is another example in a long line of anti-public land organizations resorting to questionable tactics to justify their extreme agenda."

Such tactics recently included phony notices displayed in San Juan County claiming the Interior Department plans to drastically reduce the size of the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona and Utah and a fake invitation to a party to celebrate the new Bears Ears National Monument, excluding Utah Navajos.

The phony documents were intended to divide the Navajos over the proposed monument that proponents claim would save valuable Native American artifact from vandals.

Sutherland has had some controversies with its reports before.

A few years ago, the institute, which has criticized the public school system before, posted a story on its YouTube page that questioned the Jordan and Granite school districts' commitment to students with learning disabilities and other problems. It quoted a source who identified certain students as qualifying for special programs that the school districts allegedly ignored.

The districts objected to the story, claiming the reporter, who left Sutherland shortly after the story was posted, didn't bother to get their side or talk to education experts who administer those programs and say the allegations are baseless.

The Sutherland story also didn't mention the source's wife administers some of the special programs the source said the district was ignoring.

Sutherland once issued a treatise on the "Natural Family," declaring it solely consists of one man and one woman and their children. It sent the paper to local governments, encouraging them to adopt it as their policy.

The Kanab City Council did just that in a resolution and fire and brimstone subsequently came down on the city.

National outdoor writers called for a boycott of Kanab, whose economy relies heavily on outdoor tourism. The city's businesses objected sternly to the resolution and the city council eventually had to repeal it. —