Rep. Wayne Owens' proposal for a great federal-state land swap ran into a blizzard of criticism Friday, as a Salt Lake hearing of the U.S. House Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee went into the afternoon.
Former Gov. Scott Matheson supported the idea of a great trade, as did former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson, who hopes to be the next governor. But they were in the minority.Some environmentalists who usually back Owens, D-Utah, reluctantly attacked his bill. This led the congressman to joke that his astrologer was wrong in picking Friday for the hearing, as shown by the testimony of his "former friends."
Matheson denounced the policy of using state sections as "a leverage game" in the midst of special federal areas such as parks and wilderness regions. "I do not think state lands should be used to harass federal land management decisions," he said.
"I don't like the dog-in-the-manger attitude, to be frank."
Bangerter and members of the state congressional delegation once supported Project BOLD, Matheson's plan for a great land trade. "Unfortunately, the current (state) administration abandoned that legislation."
Utah has 5,000 scattered square-mile sections, Matheson said, and these are nearly unmanageable.
The federal government gave the land to Utah at statehood, with proceeds to fund public education in the state.
The state land pays for only 1 percent of the school budget, even though it was set aside to support the schools. Consolidation could improve the economic value of state property.
Wilson said partisanship caused Utah to drop plans for a grand trade.
"We don't have to exchange every checkerboard piece," under Owens' bill, he said. The governor would decide which sections to trade.
Owens needled Gov. Norm Bangerter for alleged inconsistency, as he earlier supported Project BOLD.
"The reason that nothing has happened for four years (since BOLD was introduced) is there was a total lack of support from the state and the state's delegation in Congress," Owens said.
But Bangerter responded that Utah's relationship with the federal landlord has improved since then.
Like several others who testified, Bangerter called for a mechanism to facilitate tract-by-tract exchanges, rather than one massive trade.
Kemp Conn, acting Bureau of Land Management director for Utah, said the bill would severely restrict the Interior Department's options.
Michael R. Sibbett, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, said it's a good idea to pull state sections out of national parks, national monuments, military bases, Indian reservations and other limited-use areas.
"However, we feel lands eligible for exchange should be expanded" to include allowing the state to get land in national recreation areas, wilderness study areas and areas of critical environmental concern. These areas can change as needs change, he said.
Tom Bingham, Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said the group is opposed to a massive trade unless guarantees are given that the historic multiple uses are respected. Owens' bill could have unforeseen impacts, he said.
Rodney E. Greeno of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said state land reform is needed in Utah. "Unfortunately, all suggestions seem doomed by the insistence of some elected Utah officials on using state lands as a weapon against wilderness and parks."
Rep. Howard C. Nielson, R-Utah, said that for some sections of land, the trade "can be more mischievous than remedial. . . .
"The bill excludes lands already locked up in various federal reservations from national parks to BLM areas of critical environmental concerns."
State Rep. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, said, "It is simply premature" to keep out of consideration for a trade federal land that is in wilderness study areas. Congress might not designate wilderness there, he said.
William D. Howell, executive director of the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments, said the scattering of state land is not all bad.
Keeping some state land within federal areas has merit, he said. He attacked a provision of Owens' bill that would allow the state to manage its land for reasons other than maximum economic return.
Howell said that could shift benefits of the land, presently earmarked for the schools, to preservation interests.
Terri Martin of the National Parks and Conservation Association said the bill should be stronger in keeping sensitive federal land out of the state's hands. And the bill still wouldn't prevent state officials from mismanaging the land Utah obtained.
Mike Medberry of the Wilderness Society said Owens' bill does not assure public involvement in the exchange process. The bill should require that the state manage the land it acquires for multiple-use purposes "including protection of environmental values," he said.