Soon to be introduced into the Utah Legislature will be a bill that – in time – could become one of the greatest changes in Utah life since statehood.
Literally so – as it could lead, perhaps only after a U.S. Supreme Court decision, to nearly all of the federal land in Utah becoming state land, controlled by the Legislature, the governor, and a new public land commission.
Those lands could be tilled for planting, mined for coal, or sold or leased into real estate development.
That’s right, millions of acres of BLM and monument land being turned over to the state for administration, and developed in a fair, measured way, even sold into private hands if that is its best use.
“It’s a promise made to Utah 116 years ago at statehood,” says Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, only one of several leaders of the effort. “We’ve waited long enough. It is time to act.”
As Utah school children learn, when Utah became a state in 1896, Congress took possession of millions of acres within the state, promising “in a timely manner” to turn those lands over to the state or otherwise dispose of them.
But more than 100 years later, 70 percent of Utah remains in federal hands.
Knowing that not having access to profits, leases and other revenues from that land would harm Utah’s tax base – and it’s ability to educate its children -- mile-wide square sections were deeded to the state in 1896.
And while Utah leaders have done their best to make money from those state trust lands, profits, taxes and such in Utah are nothing compared to other states allowed into the Union with little or no federal lands.
The bill will do a number of things, said Ivory.
Key among them is that it sets a deadline of the end of 2014 for the federal government to agree to real and reasonable timelines to return millions of acres – most of it in BLM land – to Utah control.
Immediately, the bill sets up a public lands commission to work with “all parties” – especially including federal officials – to make with Ivory believes inevitably will come – the turnover of federal lands to state control.
Lawmakers in four western land states will be running similar bills in their legislative sessions this year – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Idaho.
Ivory’s bill will be unique to Utah, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has turned his bill into model legislation that other western land states can use.
While ALEC is a conservative legislative/business group, Ivory says he hopes to get Utah Democrats onboard with this new effort.
Former House Minority Whip Kelly Atkinson, who served in the Legislature from 1986-1996, is working with Ivory.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” said Atkinson. “We need to get more money for public education. We’re spending 69 percent of our taxes on education. Republicans won’t raise taxes for education. This is a new path. We’re saying to (the federal government) if you won’t give us these lands – and we make education money on them -- then your pay taxes on them.”
Environmentalists have some sway in the Utah Democratic Party. But Atkinson said there’s no reason that Utah state land managers can’t protect lands as well or better than the feds. “And it will be written into the bill that we have to have open spaces” and wise use of the lands, he said.
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and other members of the state’s congressional delegation will help take the issue to Congress, he said.
While Utah wants to work with federal land officials to, over time, transfer the management of federal lands to the state, it may well take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to make it happen.
A recent high court decision concerning lands in Hawaii clearly shows that Utah and other western land states have a case, Ivory said.
Basically, the high court ruled that the federal government can’t abridge at a later date promises made at statehood – especially in regard to a “timely disposal” of federal lands.
“116 years is not timely,” said Ivory.
The new law, if it passes, will be part of that legal effort.
-- Sets the Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for Congress to transfer title to public lands to Utah.
-- Sets up the Utah Land Commission to manage those lands.
-- “Preserves and secures” national parks as they are today. In turn, Utah will cede those parks to the federal government, just like California ceded Yosemite National Park to the federal government.
While environmentalists and some others may strongly oppose this new effort, Ivory says there’s no reason to fear Utah getting control of lands promised to it so long ago.
“We will, I’m sure, be reasonable. We’ll recognize rights like access, open space, grazing and responsible development of our abundant natural resources.”
Just one example: While he doesn’t say this will happen, it is possible that the huge coal fields now off limits because of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah could be developed by the new state land commission.
But if that was done, it is no different from what other states have done with their public lands – with the approval state elected officials and with proper environmental licenses, Ivory says.
Ivory throws out some really big numbers in what this massive change could mean to Utahns – huge amounts of money flowing into state coffers – and especially to public education -- thousands of jobs and significant economic development.
North Dakota was allowed into the Union and its federal lands turned over to the state.
“In that state, those former federal lands now contribute $1.2 billion in road development and school buildings, in addition to $340 million directly to school classrooms. All because they have access to their natural resources.”
Utah is about 70 percent federal land, although some of that isn’t developable.
But if the BLM land were put into the state’s “greenbelt” agricultural category and property taxes paid on that, yearly that would bring $250 million into the state school trust fund.
But that’s a low number.
“We will send tax notices to the BLM. If Freddie Mac pays local taxes on foreclosed properties it holds, then federal land officials should pay taxes also,” Ivory told UtahPolicy.
“There is estimated $2 trillion – that’s a “T” – in resources now tied up in our federal lands in Utah. There is no reason it shouldn’t be in state control; it should be in state control.”
And Ivory believes his bill will, over time, make sure those lands are in state control.