This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Is land a commodity, just another possession to generate income? Or is land inseparable from our roles as thoughtful and ethical beings forever woven into the web of living things and the physical world that sustains us?
Your answers to these questions predict your attitude toward Utah legislators' request to take over 30 million acres of public lands. Your answers also underlie our anguished wrangle over the soul of the West.
I'll admit that I have always believed in public lands as our permanent common ground. I use the word "community" more than I use the word "property," the word "conservation" more than "commerce," the word "planning" more than "profit."
Utah legislators use different language. In many years, their biggest campaign contributions come from the Utah Association of Realtors. Our governor is the former president of that association. Many members are or have been real estate developers.
Citizens of the West once pleaded for intervention from Washington. The idea for the Cache National Forest began with Cache County commissioners, who asked the government in 1902 to protect and maintain their watersheds. Theodore Roosevelt spoke at Salt Lake City's Mormon Tabernacle when he signed the bill creating what would become Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
T.R. railed against the shortsighted attitudes at the heart of these bills. The legislators claim we need to turn over our nation's heritage to development to adequately fund our schools. There are other ways.
Starting with Ohio, Congress granted incoming states at least one square-mile section per township to support public schools. Utah received four sections per township, a nearly 10 percent tithe. So why not block up the remaining school trust lands that checkerboard our state? Create a massive land exchange that removes state lands from within parks, forests and wilderness, and concentrate them near towns, cities and industrial areas.
The federal government already gave homesteaders a chance to make a living from land left over after we set aside national parks and forests, native nations and wildlife refuges. In humid places with good soil, the ideal of a 160-acre farm worked; miners had their chance to claim mineral resources. But in the arid West, much of the land turns out to be more profitable for the spirit than the pocketbook.
There is a direct correlation between aridity and acreage of remaining public lands. Nearly 65 percent of Utah is federal land, the second highest total in the nation and Utah is the second-driest state. Next door in Nevada the driest state 83 percent of the state is owned by all of us.
If the courts allow these demands to move forward, Utahns will be saddled with vast acreages too dry to sell. Our state will take over tasks that cost more than $200 million annually (the combined Utah budgets of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service) to continue to fight brush fires and cheatgrass invasion in the West Desert, manage grazing leases, enforce the law on millions of remote acres. We will continue to pay federal income tax to manage public lands in other states. But in Utah, we will be on our own.
Do we want to privatize our national and international treasures? Do we want trophy homes crowding the shores of Mirror Lake, oil rigs marring every view from Arches and Canyonlands national parks, strip mines peeling back the earth wherever a seam of coal emerges and contributing mightily to the return of the Dust Bowl? Do we really want to sell to the highest bidder the stunning scenery that draws millions of visitors and feeds Utahns' souls?
Of course not.
Stephen Trimble is a Salt Lake City-based writer and teacher. His latest book is "Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America"; website: http://www.stephentrimble.net.