A recent editorial by former Sen. Bob Bennett casts the effort of Utah and several other Western states to secure the transfer of our public lands as one to “take back” the federally controlled lands within our borders. On this basis, he suggests it is unlikely Utah can “take back” something it never had.
Much has happened over the past few years on this important effort. We appreciate the opportunity to clarify what the effort is — and is not — and why it matters deeply for the future of our state and our nation.
Utah is not trying to “take back” something it never had. In fact, Utah and other Western states are simply working to make Congress honor the very same statehood promise to transfer title to the public lands that it already kept with all states east of Colorado.
Mr. Bennett related a story told by a former BLM director that our public lands were offered but Utah’s governor refused them. The fact is that in 1932 the states were only offered the surface lands while the federal government would keep all of the valuable minerals. The states rejected this “offer” to only honor half of their statehood promise.
History reflects that states such as Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were as much as 90 percent federally controlled for decades. They persistently protested to Congress that they couldn’t fund the education of their children, grow their economies, or govern themselves as sovereign states where the federal government controlled their lands.
Under the leadership of U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, D-Missouri, those states banded together and compelled Congress to transfer title to their public lands. Sen. Benton understood, and taught throughout the United States, that it was the “solemn compact” of the national government — from the founding of our nation — to transfer title to the public lands within the states.
He taught the people true principles and rallied them to compel their members of Congress to “fix their eyes steadily upon the period of the speedy extinction of the federal title to all the lands within the limits of their respective states .” His courage was so legendary that President Kennedy featured him in his best-selling book “Profiles in Courage.”
Inspired by the courage and leadership of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, those states succeeded in compelling the transfer of their public lands. Today, those states have less than 5 percent federally controlled lands. Significantly, the national government made the same statehood promise to transfer title to the public lands to Utah and the other Western states.
Recently, the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared that Congress does not have the authority to unilaterally change these statehood promises (known as enabling acts), particularly “where virtually all of a state’s public lands are at stake.”
Recent studies show that Western states generate significant net revenues from the millions of acres of state-managed public lands, while the federal government consistently loses money managing public lands. With more than $150 trillion in mineral value and “more recoverable oil than the rest of the world combined” locked up in the federally controlled public lands, Utah could realistically close the $2.6 billion per-pupil funding gap and reduce our extreme dependence on unsustainable federal funds.
The National Association of Forest Service Retirees recently warned of the unsustainability of current federal forest management practices resulting in increased catastrophic wildfires, which negatively impact air quality, kill millions of animals and destroy habitat and watersheds for decades. We simply can’t afford not to secure the transfer of our public lands.
Around the West, modern-day Thomas Hart Bentons are teaching and rallying allies. The National Association of Counties, American Farm Bureau, Republican National Committee, South Carolina Legislature, schools boards, chambers of commerce, among others, have passed resolutions supporting the transfer of public lands. (Copies of these resolutions and more information are available at www.AmericanLandsCouncil.org.)
We at the Legislative Public Lands Caucus support these measures. Clearly, knowledge and courage are the only obstacles to securing the transfer of our public lands — just like all states east of Colorado have already done.
Keven J. Stratton lives in Orem and represents House District 48, including portions of Provo, Orem, and Lindon. He is a practicing attorney and involved in the management of companies in the areas of construction, agriculture, and real estate.