At least four groups of interests have a stake in the future of federal lands in Utah: recreationalists, the mining industries, environmentalists and the state itself. The intersection of these interests often seems impassable. And with two-thirds of the state land in the hands of the federal government, the issue commands a lot of attention.
But while grand solutions are elusive, Utah has been successful at making small but significant steps toward resolutions. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert finalized such a solution this week.
At the start of his first Outdoor Recreation Summit on Thursday, Herbert announced the finalization of a deal in which Utah gives the federal government 25,000 acres of wilderness in Grand County and other parts of eastern Utah in exchange for about 35,000 acres, mainly in Uintah County, that contains untapped energy resources.
The swap was approved by Congress in 2009. Still, it took five years to work out the details. Patience is a key in dealing with these contentious issues. The governor and other officials are to be commended for carefully working through the stumbling blocks. Too often, the federal government exhibits little patience as it seeks to impose its will.
That happened in 1996 when President Bill Clinton used the power granted him by the Antiquities Act to summarily declare a wide swath of southern Utah as the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. In doing so, he protected some land that ought to be left pristine. But he also tied up some of the state’s most mineral-rich land, including huge coal reserves beneath the Kaiparowits Plateau.
People are worrying that President Barack Obama might use the same law to similarly declare more of the state off-limits to extraction or recreation. The solution Herbert and federal officials announced Thursday is far preferable and far more democratic.
Much of the federal land in Utah contains important minerals that could help the nation become energy independent. Much of it also is worth preserving, and much can offer recreational opportunities that enhance life and promote tourism. The more stakeholders succeed at removing political considerations from the issue, the easier it is for rational decisions to be made. Solutions soon follow, and all sides win.
Herbert’s plan is to enhance the state’s outdoor recreation industry while also promoting energy extraction. He has created an Office of Outdoor Recreation to help with this vision. The Outdoor Retailers Association, which holds a twice-annual expo in Salt Lake City, is one major player seeking to enhance the recreational use of the land. It is concerned about the state Legislature’s efforts to try to get all federal land turned over to the state.
There are good reasons why Utah would be better able to manage these lands than Washington, but Congress is not about to acquiesce to the Legislature’s demands.
In Thursday's announcement, Herbert showed that compromise solutions are possible. This type of agreement is the key to intelligent land management because it recognizes the value that all stakeholder groups bring to the process.