One national issue unique to the West is that of public lands. Utah, in many ways, has been at the forefront of that issue. Nearly half of all the land in the western United States is owned by the federal government. In Utah it is just under two-thirds. In fact, Utah is second only to Nevada in the share of land owned by the federal government (although Idaho and Alaska are close).
Utah is one of the most active states in trying to transfer control of much of these lands to state and local governments. In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act which required the federal government to grant federal land in Utah to the state after 2014. The federal government did not comply, so the State of Utah approved funding to file a lawsuit against the federal government in an attempt force compliance.
But what do Utahns think about public lands? Out of a list of 20 concerns in Utah Foundation’s Utah Priorities Project survey, public lands came in 12th place. It wouldn’t surprise many to know that conservative voters are more likely to have a higher level of concern, while Utah voters with a higher level of education and younger generations like the Millennials report a lower level of concern.
But what does that really mean for Utah? One thing it means is that federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service decide how to best use that land, whether that is conservation, mining, oil or gas extraction, logging, recreation, or other uses. It also means that the federal government foots the tab to take care of those lands.
While we mentioned earlier that conservative voters tend to have a higher level of concern, there is a considerable amount of concern among liberal voters as well. The real difference is who Utahns think can best manage those lands. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Utah would do a better job than the federal government of managing Utah’s public land.” 63% of Utahns agreed while 26% disagreed. This question was actually one of the most ideologically divisive questions we asked.
But if Utah does end up gaining control of its own lands, the state will have to deal with a different set of problems: ponying up enough cash to take care of those lands. In an extensive analysis of the transfer of public lands to Utah, researchers from the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University looked at what it would take to maintain these federal lands. They concluded that Utah would be able to pay for public lands through taxes on oil and gas extraction if either they could negotiate a higher share of revenue from the federal government (they currently split it 50-50), or if oil and gas prices were high and new extraction occurred at faster than historic levels. However, a cash-strapped federal government is not likely to give up revenue sources, and oil and gas prices are at historic lows. Had Utah been successful in gaining control of public lands in 2014, it would currently be in something of a bind on how to maintain those lands. There are other resources-based taxes, but likely funds would have to come from some other source. The state could raise taxes to cover the expense, or perhaps the state could sell off land so the burden of management was shifted to private owners. However, the state would not want to sell off revenue-generating lands, so there is some question as to whether there might be a willing buyer for lands that do not generate revenue.
Overall, this is a topic that a lot of Utahns care about. After all, it is our beautiful surroundings (much of which is public lands) that Utah is known for. Most Utahns think the state could manage the land better than the federal government. If this is indeed something the majority of Utahns value, then they might be willing to pay additional taxes or reallocate revenue from elsewhere to ensure quality local control of their natural surroundings.