Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB1332, which arrived at her desk with the imprimatur of the Arizona state legislature—and with language that demanded that the federal government turn over to the state 47,000 square miles of the state’s public lands. I may never have agreed with Governor Brewer before on any issue, but she got this one right. She acknowledged the clear unconstitutionality of the bill; she foresaw a nightmare for holders of leases on federal land while the bill made its way through the courts. And she acted with good common sense when she sent the legislation to the dustbin, using the same arguments any good conservationist would use.
Utah did not fare so well. Governor Gary Herbert signed our own version of a similar bill.
Last month, in an interview on our Salt Lake City NPR station, KCPW, I spoke in defense of managing public lands for the many and not the few. I shared the hour with Utah Representative Roger Barrus, one of the bill’s principal sponsors—though he refused to appear on-air with me; he would only speak alone and unchallenged. Today, I’ll be speaking to this issue again on Utah Public Radio’s “Access Utah” program.
I never cover all of my points in a half-hour interview or a 600-word op-ed. Since the issue won’t go away, I’ll post my notes here on THE BRIGHT EDGE. I don’t want to lose the research and the reasoning. Hence, this archive (or shall I call it a rant?), with considerable borrowing from BARGAINING FOR EDEN :
Each time I loop through twentieth-century environmental history I reach the same two contradictory conclusions: that we have made astonishing progress toward achieving Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and Rachel Carson’s sense of wonder. And that we still rarely rise above the old destructive notions of unbridled development, of land as commodity.
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.”
The reason we have 30 million acres of public land in Utah is not because the Federal government did not strive mightily to give it away—both to legitimate settlers and to speculators. They all tried, but Utah will never fill in. We are the second driest state in the continent. Because of our aridity, we are ecologically fragile. Because of climate change, our state will become both drier and more fragile.
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 in America—83 percent of the state is owned by all of us.
The reason rural counties in our state have dismal economies isn’t because of neglect. They simply can’t support more people than they do. They are remote—for a reason. There aren’t enough resources for large populations nor is there enough water. We believe in growth for growth’s sake, in the inherent goodness of unlimited economic development—and we were the last state in the Union to form a Department of Natural Resources. We have the smallest acreage total of conserved private lands in the Rockies.
One third of our legislature has ties to the real estate and development industry; in past legislatures, the majority of members have come from the development industry. In many years, their biggest campaign contributions come from the Utah Association of Realtors. Our governor is the former president of that association. Between 75 percent and 95 percent of all subdivision parcels created in the Rockies are platted and sold without evaluation of the environmental, social, and economic impacts of that development.
So we are talking about a fundamental difference in values.
What these rural places (which are pretty much synonymous with public lands) have is extraordinary landscapes. There are no other places on the planet like the Canyonlands and Navajo Country of the Colorado Plateau. No experiences of solitude compete with the sweep of the Great Basin valleys in the West Desert. We all know and love the High Uintas and the Wasatch backcountry.
We also are in the top ten of urbanized states in the Union. New York has a more agriculture-based economy than Utah. We don’t see water as a limiting factor for population growth and economic expansion—but we should.
Ranching on public lands in the West no longer represents a dominant sector of the economy or the workforce. In the next ten years farming and ranching jobs will decline in numbers nationally more than any other occupation. Just 180 permittees run livestock on the 2.2 million acres of BLM land in the Richfield District an area with a population of 50,000. Services and retirement income, not resource extraction, are the growth factors here. Welcoming new people and new skills will grow the economy. Agriculture, on the other hand, has declined to just 15 percent of the jobs in Wayne County, and manufacturing (including forest products) to less than 4 percent.
Remote corners of the West that appear to be rural grow ever more tied to cities, just as the World Wide Web and the global economy link the far corners of the planet ever more completely.
The Governor and the legislators who support this bill speak of public lands as a “problem.” Ask the people of Utah who treasure their shared heritage of natural landscapes open to all if they think public lands are a problem.
Ask the millions of international tourists who come to southern Utah every year if they think undeveloped land and dark night skies are problems.
Ask the outdoor recreation industry that comes to Utah twice a year for its national convention because of our public lands if they think that national forests and wild country is a problem. That outdoor recreation industry contributes $5.8 billion annually to Utah’s economy, supports 65,000 Utah jobs, generates nearly $300 million in annual state tax revenues and produces nearly $4 billion annually in retail sales and services in Utah. The show attracts more than 2,000 companies and over 40,000 people from all over the world and amounts to $40 million in direct spending within the city. Do you think they will keep coming if we privatize our public lands?
Governor Herbert sounds like generations of Westerners before him when he complains that the director of the BLM, Bob Abbey, has more power over the lands in the state of Utah than he does. He asks to rebalance the state’s relationship with the Federal government—and he reprises the battle over Federalism versus states rights that goes right back to the founding of the Republic.
We fought a Civil War over this issue. Remember: the Federalists won.
The advocates for Utah ask for equality with the Eastern states in terms of private lands. Representative Roger Barrus uses the language of sovereignty. But we are too dry a place to be independent. We are embedded in the Colorado River Basin, and every management decision in the Utah deserts affects states from Colorado to California. We need to collaborate and plan. We’ll need help from the Federal government—our government—to survive droughts.
I often interview ecologists and climate scientists—and I’ve learned two bedrock truths about Utah and western ecology from listening to them.
First, Utah and the Colorado Plateau lie at the crosshairs of climate change, and we will need to strategize for resiliency as our environments shift with drought and rising temperatures. And, second, if we want to continue to revel in the natural communities we love, to live with large mammals as our companions on earth, we must maintain the connectivity of their habitats. Isolated refuges and preserves aren’t enough. This bill will lead only to further fragmentation.
Do you think the legislators are thinking about these threats? I don’t think so. But I know biologists in federal land management agencies who are among the leading international thinkers on these issues—and they work right here in Utah, under salary from the dreaded Federal government.
At the signing ceremony, Roger Barrus ridiculed the ability of the Federal agencies to manage public lands wisely. He says Utah has a good track record for managing public lands. But our state can’t even manage its state parks wisely enough to keep them open!
Our state will take over tasks that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The combined Utah budgets of the BLM and Forest Service alone total more than $200 million. That’s every year. We will have millions of acres to manage—even if we sell off what we can, and we’ll have to continue to fight brush fires and cheatgrass invasion in the West Desert, manage grazing leases, enforce the law on millions of remote acres.
Utah citizens will continue to pay Federal income tax to manage public lands in other states. In Utah, we will be on our own.
Representative Barrus worries over the right issues: invasive species, changing fire regimes—and a nation crippled by debt without the money to fund management. But the only way Utah would have the funds to replace that Federal budget would be to vastly increase development—with constant court battles at every step, for we aren’t likely to do away with all the great Federal conservation legislation of our lifetimes.
He uses the State Institutional Trust Lands as a model—but the sole mission of SITLA, the state agency that manages our school trust lands, is to extract maximum profit from their lands. Conservation, wildlife corridors, strategies to mitigate climate change, management for ecological resiliency—none of this matters as much as profit. SITLA, by definition, is not a multiple-use agency.
Where did those school trust lands come from? Starting with Ohio in 1803, Congress began granting incoming states at least one square-mile section per 36-section township to support public schools. Utah received four sections per township as compensation for the vast amount of land retained by the people of the United States. Lawmakers considered most of arid Utah to be worthless and figured the state needed all the help it could get. Thirty percent of Utah’s private land started out as “school sections,” mostly sold in the first thirty-five years after statehood in 1896.
In a recent editorial, Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell rightly points out that national parks have at least an $11 billion maintenance backlog. The Forest Service has its own $3-5 billion backlog. Millions of acres of national forests risk catastrophic wildfire, and the majority of our federal grazing lands are in less than fair condition. The federal government won’t be able to find funding to dig itself out of its backlog hole.
He asserts that Utah will do a better job managing these lands. Where will all these billions come from? The only possibility: intense resource extraction and privatization. And I’m concerned about his ability to create a vast cadre of knowledgeable managers when he says: “Would we really build a McDonalds in Arches or destroy Natural Rock Bridge?” I think he means Natural Bridges or Rainbow Bridge National Monument, but I’m not sure.
The bill that Governor Herbert has signed proposes a Public Lands Commission to manage Utah’s newly acquired 30 million acres. We know how this commission would be appointed—from the power elite of our state, who believe in development to their core. Do they already have a transparent management plan laid out? If not, I find it worrisome and irresponsible that they would just “wing it” to create a process. I don’t think they’ll be transparent. I worry that they may not know where this mysterious “Natural Rock Bridge” is.
Where did those public lands come from? Did they ever belong to the states? Let’s take a quick spin through history.
Americans claimed 214 million acres claimed under the Homestead Act between 1862 and 1923. Of the 32 million acres of original entries under the Desert Land Act (which upped the homestead to 640 acres in 1872), only 8 million acres were finally patented to settlers.
Speculation and aridity led to millions of acres reverting to Federal ownership, to be sold or become part of the BLM lands.
In the 1870s, John Wesley Powell argued for 2560 acres per settler in the Desert West—and managing the arid lands watershed by watershed. No one listened. Instead, by 1889, over 1 million sheep and 350,000 cattle roamed the Salt Lake Valley and Wasatch Range. Ten years later, sheep numbers grew to over 3 million head. When a range specialist took a look at the unmanaged range in 1902, he saw complete deforestation, brushlands grazed to dust, ravines used as log shoots, eroded roads, mine tailing piles, slash and sawdust heaps, indiscriminate and recurring human-caused fires—environmental collapse.
By 1906, we had our first national forests in Utah—and the LDS Church supported their creation. Even so, sheep overgrazing and habitat destruction continued.
We did our best to sell and give away and allow to be stolen all those millions of acres of Federal land. We violated treaty after treaty with Indian people and appropriated their vast lands (that we had guaranteed to them in perpetuity) for settlement and development. This is what historians and scholars call the Era of Disposal. But it ended!
The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act brought down the curtain on disposal. In 1946, after a land grab by Western senators that reached too far, the Bureau of Land Management was created to manage public lands.
Ronald Reagan and James Watt tried again in the 1980s, but by then the country had come around to a new conservation ethic, including passage of the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act—all under the Republican administration of Richard Nixon.
The supporters of the 2012 bill call these laws a burden of bureaucracy and regulation. But as we insisted that business clean up pollution, we saved the lives of citizens. Because of the management under these laws, we have brought species brought back from the brink of extinction and preserved irreplaceable habitats.
The supporters worry about restrictions on access. What sort of access will citizens have if we privatize public lands? Given the passion for private property rights in the West, I think citizens will find their access considerably diminished if Congress acquiesces to these demands.
I can see alternatives: Why not block up the remaining school trust lands that checkerboard our state? Create a massive land exchange that removes state lands from parks, forests, and wilderness; concentrate them near towns, cities, and industrial areas where they can truly benefit schoolchildren. Conserve our wildland heritage intact and you grow the economy: In the last 40 years, the fastest growth in the West has been in communities adjacent to protected public lands.
Instead of doing everything we can to entice heavy oil and gas development that compromises our incredible heritage of wild land, and instead of spending the citizens’ money we would use as incentives—or in court battles—why not hire Jeremy Rifkin to help us convert to a distributed renewable energy economy? Rifkin is a big-picture thinker who advises the European Union on how to facilitate a Third Industrial Revolution—and Germany is leading the way.
Converging the Internet with renewable energies will allow millions of people to generate their own green electricity in their homes, offices, and factories and then share it across a vast energy internet, just like they now create their own information and share it online with millions of others. Utah would be much wiser to invest in this kind of visionary thinking that could sustain our economy in this new and challenging century, and we would support our schools in the process.
What the legislature is doing—what Representative Barrus is doing by refusing to have a conversation on the air with me—is to create the same kind of top-down insider decision-making that those same officials decried when President Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. To make progress, we need to talk with each other. We need to go find Greg Bell’s Natural Rock Bridge and break bread in its shadow and talk about its future.
The county-by-county lands bill process provides one possible route to this conversation. Everyone needs to be at the table to feel invested, to have their contributions to a final compromise. Only then do we have procedural justice.
Dan Kemmis, the former speaker of the Montana legislature and past mayor of Missoula, has imagined the creation of gigantic land trusts that would turn whole watersheds over to local compacts of states, Indian tribes, and citizens. He insists on two provisos: that the lands remain public in perpetuity, and that trustees manage them for ecological sustainability. That approach has real possibilities—but it embraces far more stakeholders than this current grab for power by Utah’s politicians.
Gale Dick, our treasure of a founder of Save Our Canyons here in SLC has suggested to me that “long-term bickering may be the solution, not the problem. After all, protection of the land, not harmony among stakeholders, is the goal.” We need to talk this out on the land we all love—not fire volleys at each other in court.
As Olympia Snowe said on the PBS Newshour on March 21, as she left the Senate in disgust:
“People view compromise as a capitulation of your principles. It’s not. What is the objective of serving in public office? I believe it’s problem-solving.
“I would recommend being open and listening to the people with whom you disagree—not just to the people with whom you agree. You can’t solve a problem if you aren’t talking to the people who disagree with you.”