My view: Who will do the science if Western land grab is successful?

By Steven L. Peck

Published: Sunday, March 17 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

I'm a Utahn though and through, but I'm worried about my home state: Hustlers here keep trying to steal property that belongs not just to me, but to all Americans.

This extreme version of the "Sagebrush rebellion" and its attempt to loosen federal control in land management, is a persistent — and to my mind wrongheaded — crusade for those who want the state to take over public lands managed by the federal government in order to allow easier exploitation of these lands for their private purposes, although they always phrase this attempt as "taking back" public land.

Utah's Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature are championing these misdirected efforts, and the governor has affirmed publicly his support for what has been called a Western land grab.

The move is not universally supported, I'm happy to say. An editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune decried what this unconstitutional appropriation would cost taxpayers, both in terms of lawsuits and wasted effort. For instance, it is estimated that just managing the land would cost Utah taxpayers $300 million annually. And from the point of view of both the recreation industry and conservationists, losing federal protection for wildlife and natural resources would be disastrous.

Moreover, what would also be lost, and something few people are talking about, is good science. Science is an unbiased search for the truth as revealed about the world by detailed and properly conducted studies. This includes extensive data gathering, detailed and sophisticated statistical analyses, and research and analysis done by scientists who know their business.

When it comes to managing the public lands in Utah, a tremendous amount of information must be collected to ensure that all stakeholders' interests are acknowledged, including from those who use the land for recreation — such ase mountain biking, hiking, hunting and fishing — to those who rely on precious water resources to grow crops and livestock. And all of us in the West depend on public lands for healthy watersheds. All of this is costly.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 22.2 million acres of public land. This, and other government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, spend more than $200 million a year managing public lands in Utah.

Given these costs, will the necessary detailed scientific information gathering take place if Utah takes control of these lands? Unlikely.

Let's be frank: Utah wants our public lands not to manage them but to exploit them, to sell them to the highest bidder so they can be developed and mined and stripped of resources at any cost to future uses.

Gov. Herbert says that the new money coming to the state from taking over federal lands are necessary for education, and in particular, science and math. Currently, Utah ranks dead last in educational spending per student, suggesting that education is really a very low priority in Utah.

Does science really matter to Herbert, who withdrew from the Western Climate Initiative after taking over as governor when Jon Huntsman left office? He has been clear about his denial of the relevance of climate science, indicating science does not seem something he really cares about.

The very science he wants to promote in education is telling him in no uncertain terms that climate change is real, human caused, and needs addressing. It is vital it be taken into account in planning for the future of the state.

Recently the Utah Rivers Council stated that "Utah lags perilously behind in preparing for the impacts of climate change. ... "

Gov. Herbert's caviler dismissal of science suggests that were the state to control these precious public lands, little science would be demanded before decisions about land use were made.

Any proposal that argues for this land grab must explain where the science will come from to properly manage these sensitive lands.

I fear that caring for the ecology and natural resources of my state will take a back seat to exploiting sensitive lands that Utah seeks to commandeer. This is not only a concern for citizens of Utah where this is taking place, but for all those citizens who use and enjoy these wonderful natural public resources.

Steven L. Peck is an associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University and author of the novel, "The Scholar of Moab." His views do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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