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Can Utah manage public lands and be responsible to taxpayers?

Utah has 54.3 million acres of land. The federal government manages 35 million acres (64.5 percent) of that.

In 2012 the Utah Legislature voted to begin the process of taking over responsibility for 31.2 million acres of those lands, and in 2013 commissioned a feasibility study to look at the issue.

Researchers at the state’s top public universities spent 18 months looking at the costs and benefits of transferring publicly owned land from the federal government back to the state to manage. This is millions of acres of land operated mainly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service.

What the researchers found was that, yes, Utah can manage this land, do it better than the federal bureaucracies currently in charge, and generate more revenue by doing so.

Transfer-of-Public-Lands-ReportThe BLM and Forest Service spend $247 million a year managing these public lands, bringing in $331 million in revenue. Thirty-five percent of the costs associated with land management are from forest fires, and that poses one of the greater risks in transferring land to the state. However, forest fire fighting costs projections assume the state will continue to manage forests the way the federal government has. This won’t necessarily be the case – and frankly shouldn’t be the case. Almost 80 percent of Utah’s forests have timber in excess of Forest Service guidelines. That mismanagement makes fires more likely and more severe. State management of these lands would reduce the chances and severity of forest fires, thus reducing the costs of fighting them. Additionally, clearing out the excess timber would generate more revenue for the state.

The biggest revenue generators from public lands, however, are oil and gas leases. Projecting what prices will be, and therefore revenue generation, is a murky business, but with reasonable assumptions researchers found lease revenue, combined with other sources, will more than cover the costs of transferring and managing these public lands. Furthermore, if the state increases development by as little as 15 percent, revenue would jump to $1.15 billion a year by 2035.

That is a sizable amount of tax revenue flowing to state coffers that could be used to improve environmental stewardship on neglected federal land; pay down debt; provide a balanced safety net; and give public education and teachers the kind of financial backing many proponents have sought.

Dig Deeper

Utah House Bill 148: Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study

Public Lands Transfer Final Report

End Fed Addiction: What Land Grab? Transferred Lands Will Stay Public

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