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My view: History lesson — 'Taking back' federal lands

By J. Mark Ward

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, March 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Federal land transfer issues can be complicated. Still, public dialogue should be factually correct. The Bennett editorial characterizes Utah’s past position as a barrier to the current lands movement. Dern’s testimony corrects this mispercept

Reed Saxon, Associated Press

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Robert Bennett, in his editorial “Utah unlikely to ‘take back’ federal lands,” (Feb. 17) tells a story he heard that President Hoover offered to transfer federal lands to the states, but Western states, led by Utah Gov. George Dern, said no. Bennett concludes an offer like that won’t happen again because, “We had the chance and turned it down.”

This implies Utah’s leaders then and now must be a bunch of buffoons on this issue.

Some fact checks are in order:

First, there was no federal offer of substance. It was a bill Congress never passed.

Second, Gov. Dern opposed the bill because it gave states only surface rights to land, retaining all mineral rights (oil, gas, coal, etc.), for the federal government. He testified to the U.S. House Committee on Public Lands in February 1932 that he opposed a land transfer with “everything else taken out that is worth anything at all so that we will have nothing but the skin of a squeezed lemon,” and “if we cannot get immediate control and rehabilitation of our public domain, we are against this whole proposition.”

Third, Dern lamented the loss of funding for highways and other projects that would result from federal lands transferring to Utah, but he plainly still supported a transfer if the mineral rights were included:

“If this proposed gift included all the public lands except the national parks and if it carried with it all the minerals therein contained, I am sure we would all rise up and rejoice over an act of justice long deferred. Leaving legalistic technicalities out of consideration, the States of the West have always felt that every State that is admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original thirteen States is the rightful sovereign over all the lands within its borders, including everything above and beneath the surface.”

The question was posed to Gov. Dern:

“Mr. Yon: If this Congress should pass a bill turning over to the States … all of the unappropriated lands and their resources, on the surface and under the surface, and if those lands were given to the States would that be a satisfactory gift under these provisions?

Gov. Dern: "I think so. I think most of the states would be satisfied if that were done ….

There has been much agitation for regulation and control of the public domain; and furthermore, there has been much contention between the Federal Government and the public-lands States with respect to public lands matters for all these years, and a lot of disharmony that ought to be straightened out, and moreover there has been much complaint about bureaucratic management. I think all those things may have induced the President [Hoover] to feel that he would like to relieve the States of some of this bureaucratic management and give them a chance to run their own affairs a little more.”

This all comes from a record of a federal hearing, “Bills proposing to grant Vacant, Unreserved, Unappropriated Lands to Accepting States and for Other Purposes.”

Federal land transfer issues can be complicated. Still, public dialogue should be factually correct. Bennett's editorial characterizes Utah’s past position as a barrier to the current lands movement. Dern’s testimony corrects this misperception of Utah’s past, showing Utah’s position then squares with Utah’s today: Barrier removed.

Let us reclaim Gov. Dern’s good name by reporting well Dern’s position then and Utah’s current position now.

J. Mark Ward is a senior policy analyst and public lands counsel with the Utah Association of Counties.

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