SALT LAKE CITY – A 784-page economic impact study regarding the transfer of Utah’s public lands from federal to state control was released earlier this month. While projected costs of taking over management of the desired public lands reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the revenue generated from those lands would cover the expense and then some, the report said.
Conducted by three state universities – University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University – and released by the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, the study titled “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah” gives a boost to state officials and their supporters who advocate public lands management being handed over to the states.
The study is an outgrowth of the “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” also known as House Bill 148, passed in 2012 by the Utah Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert. The act demands that the federal government relinquish authority over 31.2 million acres of land it currently oversees through the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service by the end of 2014.
An estimated 65 percent of Utah is overseen by the federal agencies. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of the land west of Kansas is also managed by the federal government.
While HB 148 demands a transferral of land management, national parks, national monuments and tribal lands are not included in the act. The only exception is the Grand Staircase-Esclante National Monument.
“It is important to make decisions based upon a thorough review of accurate, relevant information,” Herbert said in a statement. “By conducting a thorough economic analysis, the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office has provided policymakers with the data to assess the opportunities, challenges and risks associated with the potential transfer of public lands from federal to state ownership,”
According to the report, the projected costs of managing the lands will be around $228 million. However, those costs could possibly be offset by revenues generated by the public lands, anticipated to be around $331.7 million.
For its part, the federal government hasn’t necessarily been receptive of the idea of transferring public lands management. While still Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar scoffed at the idea of HB 148. Salazar told The Salt Lake Tribune that the legislation was nothing but a show.
“From my point of view, it defies common sense,” Salazar said.
Opponents of the idea, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, have stated Utah has no right to ask for lands its never truly owned, and that it divested any potential rights to those lands when it became a state. SUWA also states on its website that Utah’s move to transfer land management is unconstitutional.
Another factor SUWA points to is found in the economic impact study itself, which has to do with the source of revenue from public land – namely mineral extraction.
Royalties from mineral extraction leases would make up 93 percent of the anticipated $331.7 million the state would collect. An estimated 83 percent ($257 million) of that would come from oil and gas leases. Coal makes up the second-largest revenue source at an annual average of $28.6 million.
Currently, Utah receives half of the mineral extraction royalties, with the other half goes to the federal government. Utah will need to receive 100 percent of the money generated from those leases in order to take in the revenue total that the study projects.
“The land transfer could be profitable for the state if oil and gas prices remain stable and high and the state negotiates a change in the royalty revenue share from 50 percent to 100 percent,” the report states.
The report continues:
… At the lower price forecast, without a change in the royalty revenue share, oil and gas royalties would never be sufficient to cover the state’s costs. However, the state would have access to other revenue streams such as coal royalties; oil, gas and coal rents and bonus payments; and other land-based revenues. Nevertheless, it would be more prudent for the state to negotiate this change rather than gamble on oil and gas prices remaining high.
SUWA stated on its website:
The only way to make the numbers “pencil out” for Utah and make state management of public lands affordable is to dream of a pie-in-the-sky scenario in which the federal government not only hands over the lands to Utah, but also gives Utah its share of oil and gas revenues from those lands.
If plans regarding mineral extraction royalties don’t work out, SUWA, citing an analysis of the Utah study from The Center for Western Priorities, said Utah taxpayers could end up having to fill revenue shortfalls.
“Economists studied multiple scenarios for Utah to generate needed revenues,” SUWA states on its website. “In nearly all, Utah cannot afford the costs without putting Utah taxpayers on the hook for the difference. “According to the economists’ findings, Utah could come up between $35 million short and $69 million short per year.”
HB 148 was sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who also heads the American Lands Council, and isn’t deterred by the arguments raised by the opposition.
“Under increasing federal control, access is being restricted,” Ivory told The Washington Times. “The health of the land is diminishing horribly. And the productivity is depressed. This is the only way to get better access, better health and better productivity.”
Should the federal government ignore the Dec. 31 deadline to transfer the public lands, Ivory said state officials will proceed with a four-step plan of education, negotiation, legislation and litigation.
During the Utah Republican Party Convention in April, Ivory was featured in a video advocating the transfer of public lands. He said on the video that the transfer “is the only solution big enough” to deal with issues related to funding public education, energy independence, and creating strong state economies.
- Who should manage public lands? Lockhart, Ivory face off with McCool, Keiter at SUU debate
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- BLM, National Park Service close public lands due to trespassing cattle dispute
- Public lands transfer resolution moving through Washington County
- ‘Where’s the line?’ Ivory’s crusade to return public lands to the states
- Gov. Herbert signs public lands transfer act
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