Land grab plan is too damn risky

Last week saw the release of a long-awaited report on the feasibility of Utah managing federal lands.

According to the report, Utah could conceivably take over the management of federal lands within our borders, and with the money derived from extractive industries, pay for its upkeep.

First, the most obvious hitch in this whole plan is that the federal government has no intention of ceding control of these lands to Utah but let’s just assume for a moment that they did. According to legislators who support the land grab, this report makes it sound like a pretty great deal for Utah.

Or does it?

The entire premise of the report is based on best-case scenarios. In order to effectively manage federal land, Utah must maximize revenue from oil and gas leases, meaning oil and gas prices would need to remain high. Currently, gas prices are low and continuing to drop. Even at today’s prices, the scenario is untenable and gas prices fluctuate significantly, especially over longer periods of time.

If oil prices continue to drop this scenario is not just unrealistic but will become dire and the state will be forced to find other sources of income to manage the land. Where would that revenue come from? It could possibly come from increasing the tax burden and lease permit fees–a solution the legislature would be loath to pursue, especially if any chance of success depends on these corporate interests remaining profitable and happy with doing business in Utah. Instead, public land would have to be sold to private interests, revenue from other sources like education and roads would have to be diverted to land needs, and ultimately, taxes would have to be raised.

We also need to remember the promises of a windfall for public education from the untapped revenue hidden in federal land. When legislators proposed this plan, they promised hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for public education.

According to this report, there are virtually no scenarios where that happens. Even in a perfect world, it would not be possible to see any additional revenue other than what is necessary to maintain the land, until at least 2022.

That’s right, in a perfect world, if gas prices rise significantly, and if a whole slew of additional what-ifs pan out, there may be an increase in revenue a decade from now, maybe.

But instead of seeing this report for what it is–proof of how quixotic and foolish this land grab plan truly is, the legislature is irrationally plowing forward. They’ve already allocated $2 million to sue the federal government demanding they turn over public lands. Legal experts have told them they won’t be successful.

For our sake, let’s hope the smarter legal minds are right and they fail in this quest. Losing a couple million dollars is certainly foolish but it is far better than risking the future of our entire state on the doomed plan to manage federal land.

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.

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