Utahns are lining up to testify Friday in Salt Lake City on a bill proposed by Rep. Wayne Owens that seeks to consolidate federal and state lands.
Environmentalists, state officials and southern Utah county commissioners have all expressed reservations about the bill. However, some environmentalists favor it.The hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. Friday in the State Capitol, with Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., chairman of the powerful House public lands subcommittee, presiding. Owens, D-Utah, will be on the panel, and other Utah members of Congress will probably attend.
Most of the trading would involve the Bureau of Land Management, Utah's biggest landlord. Many BLM wilderness study areas envelop state sections, which could be a source of conflict if the state tries to develop them.
His proposal is "the rewritten Project BOLD," Owens said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It tries to do two or three things that BOLD doesn't do."
Project BOLD was a 5 million acre federal-state land trade worked out by former Gov. Scott M. Matheson and former Interior Secretary James Watt. It was an effort to consolidate the state land holdings scattered in thousands of separate square-mile tracts across the state.
Owens thinks some environmental opposition comes from people who want the state tied up with many scattered pieces of land, unable to do much with them except allow grazing.
In his proposal, state sections would be traded to the federal government at a rate of 120 acres for every 100 acres the state gives up. However, when the state trades land in National Park Service areas, Utah would get back 150 acres for every 100.
"That's going to be a tough proposition to sell," Owens said. It was based on the historic fact that much of the state's property is unusable because it is in the middle of national parks, or tied up in Indian reservations or military bases.
"It would try to avoid value-for-value transfers, which could bog us down for years and years and years, and cost millions of dollars for appraisals," Owens said.
The bill would amend the enabling act under which Utah became a state. This act required that state land be managed for financial gain, to help the public schools. The new bill would allow the state to manage some land for other values, such as scenery and recreational resources.
Rights to which anyone is now entitled would be preserved, and mineral revenue from traded tracts would be shared with the federal government. Owens said the state would get about three quarters of these revenues.
The governor would propose which land to trade.
Still, with all these concessions to the state, Owens was unable to get Gov. Norm Bangerter or the Republican members of the state's congressional delegation to support the proposal.
Why not? Owens said the fact that Matheson, a Democrat, sponsored the original trade proposal may make Republicans shy away. A controversy along party lines seems to be developing, he said.
In the end, he couldn't reach an agreement with the Republican governor and others in the congressional delegation, so Owens went ahead by himself.
Meanwhile, some environmentalists who usually support Owens on conservation measures are cautious about the bill.
James Catlin, conservation director of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, said this is particularly true "with the current attitude with the state, which has been selling off or exchanging critical lands."
Even if the state were allowed to practice balanced land stewardship because of the amendment to the statehood enabling act, he said, "in the current (Bangerter) administration, that wouldn't occur."
Also, trading for 120 or 150 percent of the land given up doesn't seem right to some critics. "We want the process to be fair and equitable; that is, the lands acquired by each on a fair basis."
Gary Macfarlane, an officer of the Utah Wilderness Association, differs with Catlin. "Project BOLD is necessary if we're going to have BLM wilderness in the state of Utah," he said.
"We're very, very supportive of the concept of BOLD," said George Nickas of the Utah Wilderness Association. "We had some concerns with the bill as written . . . , but generally it's a proposal that has to be enacted.
Among those testifying will be a delegation representing the Emery County Commission, which has its own questions about the bill. Scott Truman, executive director of the county's Economic Development Group, said the general trend of the Emery officials today is to oppose the bill.
"We're a little bit concerned because I think there's some unresolved issues in it," he said. Among these are questions about where the state's new land blocks will be located.
Emery officials are concerned that state land within the county's boundaries might be traded for land outside the county - thereby depriving the county of possible development projects.
Some state land within wilderness study areas, such as inactive uranium mines, might still have economic potential, county officials believe.
If the land is traded away and then kept within federal wilderness areas, "you eliminate the possibility for any development of those lands, being able to retrieve any of those resources," Truman said.
The answers to some questions "just aren't there yet." So the trend is to oppose the bill.
Owens said the bill isn't in its final form, and he has no hope to pass it this session. Instead, he would like to work on defining the positions and players, polish the measure during the summer and fall, and then introduce it in the 101st Congress.
He said that so far, reactions to the proposal are "very mixed."