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My view: The need for a balanced public lands policy

By Kathleen Clarke

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In its 2012 general session, the Utah Legislature passed HB148: The Transfer of Public Lands Act. This bill charged the Constitutional Defense Council with the duty to study the many complex issues pertaining to the public lands and to report its findings to the Legislature. As director of the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, I have overseen this ongoing study.

My experience as the previous executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the national director of the United States Bureau of Land Management has given me a unique insight into public lands policy: Utah's public lands would be better managed, more productive and more accessible under state stewardship.

Current federal land policy and management is inefficient, ineffective and threatens the long-term use and enjoyment of the public lands. Washington gridlock has resulted in a system where rigid and often conflicting management policies shackle federal land managers and prevent them from actively managing the lands.

Outmoded federal policies have resulted in forests that are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, insect infestation and disease. Our rangelands are deteriorating and restoration efforts are underfunded. While land is rich in timber and mineral resources, production efforts are either precluded entirely or greatly limited by regulations, endless administrative red tape and lawsuits brought by interest groups that oppose any use of the land.

As long as the public lands remain under federal control, they will continue to deteriorate, and Utah and its citizens will be deprived of the many economic benefits to which we are entitled and so desperately need. I am confident that, in state hands, the public lands will be restored, protected and more productive.

Utahns have always been good stewards of the land. We have a long track record of both environmental protection and fiscal responsibility. Utah has the expertise in existing agencies —including those within the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture and Food — to address the many complex and interrelated issues of public land management. Utahns know that people from around the world flock to our state for its unmatched beauty and incredible scenery, and to experience meaningful outdoor experiences.

No one in state government would permit the degradation of Utah's wondrous beauty. Under HB148, all national parks, all but one national monument, and all wilderness areas will remain under federal ownership and control. Other lands with similar qualities will also be protected. Lands with less aesthetic or recreational qualities that contain resources will become more accessible for development and revenue production. With ever improving technology, this can be done with minimal environmental impact.

Multiple use will be the objective, and multiple users will all be given voice, including tourists; conservationists; hunters; fisherman and other outdoor recreationists; energy industries; farm and ranch interests; local governments; water districts; and other engaged stakeholders.

HB148 is neither a "land grab" nor a "political stunt," as some have maliciously alleged. It is an earnest effort to draw attention to a federal lands policy that does not protect the land, does not pay for itself and does not meet the economic or energy challenges of today. There is no intent to sell transferred lands. Rather, these lands will be retained in state ownership and control so that they forever benefit not only the people who live, work and recreate on them, but all Utahns who look to government services to educate their children and enhance their lives.

Utah has amazing public lands, and always will. Like my fellow Utahns, I care deeply about Utah's majestic mountains, still forests and quiet desert landscapes. This land is my home. The lands we all love and treasure won't be any less public when they are managed by the state.

With proper examination and analysis, and a good faith dialogue, a more balanced lands policy can be achieved which will restore the public lands for the use and benefit of all.

Kathleen Clarke is the director of Public Lands Policy Coordination Office in the state of Utah.

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