More than half of all the land in the state of Utah belongs to every American. That’s right, it’s federal, which means everyone’s taxes go to support it. But in a challenge to more than 100 years of legal precedent, state leaders, including Governor Gary Herbert, have passed legislation saying that the federal government has reneged on a promise it made to Utah when the state was created, which is that those lands would one day revert back to private property.
And that’s precisely the rub: Utah’s bill would force the feds to sell the land to private stakeholders, generating sales tax that would support Utah’s vastly underfunded schools, where classroom sizes are ballooning to the nation’s highest per-state average.
Opponents argue that this is just another veiled way to sell land to oil, gas, and ranching companies, including the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While the bill explicitly bypasses national parks, military bases, and Native American reservations, the heavy focus on U.S. Forest Service and BLM land has conservationists concerned.
About 28 million acres of federal land exist in Utah, and the argument that the feds should sell off its holdings is undermined by the fact that Utah’s own private land holdings are fairly broad compared to many states, which long ago sold them off to private buyers or at least into cooperatively run trusts, like parklands.
None of which may matter, because, while proponents of the act say they believe the states-rights-bent Supreme Court would be apt to support it, there’s a tidal wave of court findings supporting Congressional authority over federal land. And while Utah legislators explicitly avoided any language that singled out the state’s national parks (in part because even the most zealous states right advocate knows that these lands make significant dough for Utah), their law, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would undoubtedly enable any state that wanted to to challenge federal authority over a Yosemite or a Grand Canyon. And ultimately that may be a precedent the Supreme Court would prefer not to set.
Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.