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Utah Congressman asks for $50 million to transfer federal land to states

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The Outdoor Industry Association has criticized Bishop’s request as an attack on public lands.

Rep. Rob Bishop
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop. // Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Resources Committee, has asked that the 2018 budget include $50 million to enable states to take over federal public lands.

Bishop argued in his “Views and Estimates for Fiscal Year 2018” that states and communities are burdened by “poorly managed federal lands.” He asked to build provisions into the budget that would allow for the transfer of federal lands to state ownership, including earmarking $50 million to offset any potential budget impacts from land transfers.

“These lands cannot be taxed and, in many cases, are in extreme disrepair (agencies estimate a $20 billion dollar—and growing—maintenance backlog),” Bishop wrote. “Often mingled with private land, federal lands isolate communities, limit growth, adversely impact land value, and can lead to violations of private property rights.”

Bishop gave Daggett County, Utah, as an example of a community he says is hurting from an abundance of federal land. The government owns 98 percent of the land in the county, he wrote, which “makes it extremely difficult for the county to encourage economic growth and pay for teachers, firefighters and other community services.”

The territory of Utah gave the land to the government for free in 1896 with the understanding it would be returned, Bishop wrote, adding that the county doesn’t have the money to buy it back.

The Outdoor Industry Association criticized Bishop’s request in a statement released Monday morning.

“As Chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee, Rob Bishop should be the strongest champion of America’s public lands,” Alex Boian, VP of government affairs for OIA, said in the statement. “But instead of seeking funding for improved management of and access to these lands, Bishop continually attacks and undermines them, this time asking that the FY 2018 budget include $50 million for federal land transfer to states because these lands ‘create a burden for surrounding states and communities.’ Once again, elected officials in Utah are out of touch with their constituents and leaders across the American West.”

Utah’s state leaders and congressional delegation have been saying that state residents often feel like monument designation are done to them rather than for or with them, and that that’s a large part of the reason why Utahns oppose national monument designations within their boundaries. But communities surrounding Utah’s national parks have undoubtedly seen an economic boon from outdoor recreation. When the government shut down in 2013, Utah’s national park gateway communities begged the state to reopen the parks, and Gov. Gary Herbert obliged.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported a few months later that Utah communities saw a 10-to-1 return on investment. Utah loaned the federal government enough money to keep its parks open for six days during the shutdown. That roughly $1 million investment led to about $10 million in consumer spending in park gateway communities.

“Utahns understand very clearly how important our national parks are to our state economy, particularly in rural Utah,” Herbert said in a statement when the article was published in March 2014. “The report released by the Department of the Interior shows what we have understood all along: We made the right decision to reopen our parks during the federal government shutdown.”

Herbert said during a phone call last month with OIA that he agreed Bears Ears National Monument should be a protected area, but that his constituents do not support a federal monument. In spite of data that has shown significant economic benefits for communities near national parks and monuments, Utahns’ response is indeed mixed: two recent polls, by Colorado College and the Salt Lake Tribune, found varying degrees of support for the monument but a significant amount of opposition.

Fifty-two percent of respondents to the Salt Lake Tribune’s poll said they somewhat or strongly disapprove of Bears Ears National Monument, while 34 percent said they somewhat or strongly approved of it.

The Colorado College State of the Rockies Project found that 47 percent of Utah respondents approved of Bears Ears National Monument, while 32 percent said they opposed the designation.

Colorado College also found that the vast majority of voters in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico support increasing outdoor access for recreation, promoting the outdoor economy, producing more clean energy on public lands, and improving and repairing infrastructure in national parks.

Findings from the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project.
Findings from the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project.