Ambivalent About Federal Ownership

The politics of land ownership in the intermountain west seeps into so much of the culture we experience that even avowed liberals like me find themselves torn over ideas of who should control the lands in our state.  The sense of a greater outside agent controlling so much of what is yours can be a powerful pull.  I might even say that this sense of ourselves as outside, separate and independent is nearly as powerful as the importance of water* here.

The idea of the west here is one of freedom, openness and above all, great space.  There is a wildness to the spirit of the west I love and which is an important part of my identity.  The people and the land here reflect one another; this place in all its untamed, sometimes desolate beauty will always be part of who we are.  So while those outside this place may look at the posturing and demands that our land be returned to us as truly insane examples of extreme state’s rights rhetoric, they cannot know the connection we feel with this place.  Federal ownership of our lands is an issue that often transcends other political differences here, although as always, the reasoning and tone does reflect political leanings.  Some merely question fairness, but others want to revive the Sagebrush Rebellion.

But much as I understand these ideas, I fear the outcome of allowing local or even state governments in the intermountain west to have unilateral control over these glorious places we call home.  Hell, sometimes I’m even frightened by the way that federal control of our lands works:

Now, no matter how our local politicians will ask for control of federal lands in Utah, no one would dare suggest in a million years that we sell our national parks.  They are not called our crown jewels for nothing.  Utah has a greater share of these places than nearly any other state.  And if I may be excused for the judgement, I believe it takes a person from a place with minimal charms and glories to think that our national parks are without value, as we see here with Florida Representative Cliff Stearns.

When I see this man compare something unique, precious and irreplaceable to a mere mass-manufactured car such as you find everywhere, it becomes clear that he has no experience with or ability to judge these rare treasures we have set aside.  It does no good to ignore these treasures in our nation and claim that rather than look for reasonable sources of revenue to solve budgetary issues (ensuring the rich can no longer avoid paying a fair share, for example) we should risk these places being lost to us and all those who will come after us.

I fear the same from my own legislature, truth be told. There is so much talk of energy production opportunities in our wild places to boost local economies in the short or middle term, that I often despair of finding a happy balance.

Wallace Stegner once said,

It is a better world with some buffalo in it, a richer world with some gorgeous canyons unmarred with sign boards, hot dog stands, or superhighways. If we preserve as parks only those places that have no economic possibilities, we will have no parks.

That is the truth of it and has been for the history of our country.  The competing interest of financial concerns and preservation of wilderness as intrinsically valuable have ever been at odds, and are often found in the same person.  The drive to both make use of what we have and to pass on something of value to our children is central to public lands and their management.  For those who call the West home, there is often great love for wild country but also the desire to use what it has for our benefit, and seeming outside interference can feel an unnatural intrusion.  (Personally I feel that part of why so much of our wilderness is under federal management is such a large percentage of it is so beautiful it deserves protection.)

Ken Burns has described America’s national parks as our best idea, one that allows access to wonder and transcendence.  I agree.  (Although I should note that the film does include a lot of tape of the head of the Sierra club.  And I do not by any means support much of the Sierra Club’s agenda, but that’s a whole other issue.)  I can’t imagine my childhood or my life without experiencing the vastness of nature here.  Living in Utah means I have ready access to any number of incredible places with surprising variety of scenery, climate and wildlife.

Utah's Privately Owned Land as a Percentage of the StateI believe a decent part of what makes the argument that we should be allowed to control what is ours so compelling is the love that we have for this place.  There is a great deal of pride that we call this lovely desert home, and it feels like no more than common sense that we should own the land that is ours.  There is also this a rationale that we are owed lands promised to be returned to Utah once we achieved statehood that hinges on basic fairness.

I fear that the deeper motivation is purely financial.  We may get tangential benefits from tourism, but funds such as cattle grazing leases administered by the BLM have no effect on state coffers.  And it is the financial arguments that make me fear allowing the state to gain control; I don’t want to see these beautiful places I love irreparably harmed to obtain resources, and I know that the argument for economic development is given greater weight here than risk of harm in their extraction.  We already make policy decisions based on what users want over what is healthiest and most sustainable. On Saturday our governor signed bills to yet again reduce the numbers of natural predators, appeasing deer hunters by funding a coyote killing program.

But the federal government doesn’t always show respect for the sometimes fragile beauty here either.  It says a lot just how much of the state is owned by the nation’s military, marked as without value except as a nice open place to test artillery.  Utah’s federal holdings a mix of national parks and monuments, forests, wilderness areas and expanses of bombing ranges.  Our deserts are either filled with beautiful sculpted red rock or useful only as a place to use; the number of times I’ve heard people from other parts of the country proposing we cover the Utah or Nevada desert with solar panels makes the focus of usefulness very clear.

Among locals, there is also sensitivity to financial arguments relating to land ownership and tax potential.  Many Western states are hamstrung in building a strong and supportive budget by the fact that we own a minority of the land the state.  When such a large section of the state is permanently out of the equation, it is hard to feel like you are getting a fair shake.  In Utah, we have public trust lands, which exist to aid education and are the only source of new private land.  It’s understandable to want to have more options, although there are a thousand different viewpoints on how or if we should get access to these places.

Utah Private Land Ownership by County

Then you have my state legislature, which routinely throws tantrums at the federal government over land.  This year most of the legislators decided that if they can’t convince the federal government to turn over land it controls willingly, they will simply take it.  The bills that passed both houses would open up 30 million acres, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument up to state controlled drilling, mining and development.  It would eliminate much of the areas set aside as wilderness in our state as well, all without regard to the fact that Utah forever renounced claim to the lands held in federal control over a hundred fucking years ago.

The anger I feel at an obvious fucking waste of taxpayer money to defend a message-bill challenge to the federal government when there are dozens of necessary public benefits the funds could otherwise aid is difficult to articulate.  Instead of actually doing something productive, we are stuck with yet another unconstitutional challenge to the federal government that makes us look like backward idiots who couldn’t pass basic civics.

I’m from the Intermountain West and share a certain kinship with these ideas, but my sympathies don’t erase the fact that the law passed in February is incredibly dumb and will cost us.

*This may not seem obvious to people in non-arid places, but water is very, very, very important.
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