It’s not often that lawmakers do something with tongue purely planted in cheek, but last week U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and Congressman Rob Bishop, both representing Utah, introduced a wilderness designation bill — for Illinois.
The bill was created as a response to one introduced by Sen. Dick Durban (D-Illinois) that would lock up more than eight million acres in Utah, include one million acres in Emery County.
While it is clear that Romney and Bishop were having a little bit of pre-holiday fun by pointing out that what’s good for one should be good for all, it does bring to the forefront the very serious issue of public land in the state of Utah.
More than 65 percent of Utah is federally controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Parks Service. In Illinois, there is approximately one percent of the land controlled by the federal government.
These public lands are a mixed blessing for the state. On one hand, they hold tremendous natural resources, which drive many rural economies with mineral extraction, grazing and tourism. These huge tracts of land provide people experiences that are not available in other parts of the United States. In many places, you can’t go for an OHV ride unless you happen to own enough land for it.
Camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking and many other activities are literally in people’s backyards thanks to the abundance of public lands in the state.
However, there is a downside.
Public lands don’t appear on the tax roll. Counties and school districts that serve huge tracts of area are limited by the amount of property tax they can collect due to the majority of their areas being owned by the federal government.
The other downside is that almost every year, power brokers in Washington D.C. who are not from Utah, and many who have never even been to Utah, try stunts like the one Durbin introduced. Durbin thinks he is a better steward of the land than the generations of people who live here, the communities that it surrounds and the public land managers who work on it.
Durbin is wrong.
Creating wilderness is a feel good idea among many people who don’t understand how big one million acres is. They also don’t understand how the wilderness designation shuts down multiple uses of land, closing it off to virtually everything but walking. There are few people who can walk across eight million acres. It also excludes federal land managers from working with the communities most affected by wilderness designations. It creates an atmosphere of distrust as local land managers have to follow their marching orders, even when they would much rather work with the people who they interact with on a daily basis.
That’s not to say there are not areas where a wilderness designation wouldn’t be appropriate. There are.
However, closing off millions of acres while disregarding management plans that were developed over years with input from the public and various stakeholders is a draconian approach to governing.
The Emery County Public Land Management Act was designed to navigate decades-long controversies over federal land designations in Emery County. Effectively stamping out that act by a blanket wilderness designation is an insult to the land managers and residents of Emery County, as well as Utah as a whole.
It also doesn’t help when the last two Democrat presidents used the Antiquities Act to designate millions of acres as national monuments in the twilight hours of their administrations. Both Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama made these designations in a way that felt like punitive actions intended to punish Utah for not supporting their election efforts. That hardly seems like a sound basis for public lands policy.
The problem is if you shut down all the public lands with wilderness designation, they become worthless tinder boxes. The acreages proposed are too vast and leave virtually no room for any realistic use.
It is important for people to realize the public lands fight will not end anytime soon.
In order to ensure the future of the state, especially it’s rural areas, local and state leaders need to remain vigilant in protecting access to public lands and the concept of multiple use.