In Utah and across the West, public lands are proven drivers of a high quality of life and economic growth. After last fall’s government shutdown, for example, Utah — a state with bountiful parks and wild spaces — was on its way to another record year of tourism profit, but instead suffered an estimated $30 million in lost revenue from the shuttering of revered federal lands like Zion, Bryce and Arches national parks for just 10 days. High-wage service industries like software developers and health care are promoting the West’s national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands to recruit and retain innovative, high-performing talent in communities near these stunning resources.
But some have recently called into question the benefits of our federal public lands — along with the validity of federal agencies charged with taking care of them — as recently occurred in Nevada and at Recapture Canyon here in Utah. Owned by all Americans, our public lands are looked after by four primary agencies: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That the federal government validly acquired the lands in Utah has never been seriously disputed. As the Utah Department of Administrative Services describes: “All land in Utah became part of the public domain when the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848. This land came into the possession of the United States government with a clear and undisputed title. No state contested title, and no private rights had been established previously.”
When Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896, it received a grant of 7.5 million acres from the federal government to support public schools, hospitals, reservoirs and other state priorities. The state still owns and manages those lands for the exclusive benefit of Utahns today. Utah and other Western states also uniquely benefit from a direct percentage of revenues generated from mineral development, grazing, logging, land sales and other uses of federal public lands.
Some other states had long argued strenuously against such grants on the basis that their residents had paid the highest price — in blood and treasure — for acquiring the Western territory for the common good of the nation. So another part of Utah’s statehood bargain (as with other Western states) was “That the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.” These federal public lands remain “the common property of the nation,” to be managed in the public interest and available for all Americans to benefit from and enjoy.
Today, agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are required by law to balance the many uses of these public lands to best meet the current and future needs of the American people. This so-called “multiple use” mandate includes allowing activities like livestock grazing, energy development and mining. It includes maintaining roads and trails for travel and recreation. It includes providing opportunities for hunting and fishing. And it includes conserving land and water for wildlife, scenic vistas and wilderness for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
It is not surprising that Americans — whether local residents, visitors or admirers from afar — are passionate about our public lands, their magnificent scenery, recreational bounty, economic opportunity and sheer wildness. While these agencies do not always find the right balance when weighing these passions, they do their best as public servants, and they are bound to follow longstanding laws designed to protect the public interest.
The Wilderness Society — and many others — have formally expressed our view that the BLM’s decision to protect Recapture Canyon’s fragile artifacts and natural resources from motorized traffic was legal, appropriate and strongly in the interest of the public. Recapture Canyon remains open to all who care to experience its peaceful beauty and unique cultural resources on foot or horseback.
Those who want to drive their all-terrain vehicles on the trail through Recapture Canyon that was illegally created by earlier violators certainly have a right to express their opinion. And, just like any other citizen, they have an array of lawful options to protest or challenge the BLM’s decision if they desire. But using illegal force or tactics, or making threats and harassing federal public servants, is both unnecessary and inexcusable.
The recent events in Nevada and Utah involving illegal actions taken by a few individuals are short-sighted and counterproductive. They have detracted from the agencies’ multiple use mission, diverted our tax dollars from managing and protecting our public lands, and damaged the collective lands legacy intended for all Americans to enjoy into the future.
Scott Miller is senior regional director for The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935. The Wilderness Society is a public lands conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. www.wilderness.org