Utahns living near public lands want voices heard

Haley Sotelo
Capital West News

SALT LAKE CITY ―Public lands is one major theme in this year’s Utah Legislature and there’s no shortage of debate about the issue.

SB105, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, sets a deadline of June 30, 2015, for the attorney general to file a petition with the federal court, demanding a final say on who owns public lands. More than 70 percent of Utah land is owned by the federal government and legislators seek to change this.

HB132, sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, involves the financing involved in the transfer of public lands from federal to state government.

Many rural counties such as Uintah and Duchesne would be highly impacted by this transfer. For representatives, the three top concerns are state sovereignty, money and impact to local people.

“Just because the Feds say they’re going to do something doesn’t mean they’re going to do it,” Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said during a weekly Rural Caucus meeting as he listed off broken Federal government promises concerning lands while discussing the need for it to let Utah have sole stewardship over the land.

Throughout land-related meetings at the Utah State Capitol, voices in favor of a fed-to-state land transfer have drowned out the few opposition voices.

“It is silly,” Allison Jones, Director of Wild Utah Project, opposes a land transfer. “I think they’re doing an OK job, you know. I think all the residents along the Wasatch Front ― ask them ‘how is the Forest Service doing, managing Big [and] Little Cottonwood [canyons]?’ There’s no problem. They’re doing fine. The plants are fine.”

Rep. Brad King, D-Price, said the people of his counties were not entirely opposed to the transfer. His district includes eight national parks or forests, including Arches National Park. King mentioned that Emery County had been working closely with the U.S. congressional delegation for 20 years in an attempt to create a national conservation area. However, the state wants to create a state park there instead and counter the investment that had been put into it.

“Some people just think ‘well, we’d rather have the state in charge’ and, you know, mostly I agree with that,” King said. “However, if the management plans are going to be put together by 14 people that live in Salt Lake, I have no more trust in them than I have those 14 people that live in Washington D.C.”

Bill Stringer, a commissioner for Uintah County and a former Bureau of Land Management manager, shared perspectives from his county, which has an oil-driven economy.

“We’re all for it but we want to be sure that it doesn’t end up costing us more than we can afford,” Stringer said.

“It’s really hard for us who actually live here to deal with that. We’re looking at folks that don’t even live here making the decisions,” Stringer said. “So we would love to have that decision making closer to the ground, more in tune with Utah and the people who live here but the cost has to be reasonable.”

Both King and Stringer agree that the state should take into account the opinions and sentiments of those in the rural counties that include these public lands.

“The ones who are impacted the most, the locals, should have the most say on how things are run, ” King said.

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