Congressional candidates debate Utah land use issue

Many of Utah's most striking landscape features are found in vast tracts of land controlled by the U.S. federal government.

UINTAH COUNTY – Virtually all the GOP candidates vying to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop agree that the longstanding dispute between Utah and the federal government over land use must be resolved, but the devil is in the details.

The root of the issue, according to candidate Kerry Gibson of Ogden, “is that the federal government owns about 69 percent of the land in the state of Utah. The state itself owns another 15 or 16 percent, that being either under direct state ownership or as educational or school trust land. That makes nearly 85 percent of the state owned by government entities, leaving only 15 percent of the land in private hands.

“As you can imagine, it’s really, really tough for some counties to have enough property tax base from only 15 percent (of private land). And it’s even worse in a lot of places.”

In southern Utah, for example, the land area of Garfield County includes Mammoth Cave, parts of Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks, parts of the Dixie and Fishlake national forests, parts of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Carcass Canyon Wilderness Study Area, and the Escalante Petrified Forest.

That leaves about three percent of Garfield County in private hands,“ Gibson emphasized. “Imagine trying to manage a county with a little more than 5,000 people living on three percent of the land and trying to put together a budget that educates children, provides public services and still covers search and rescue costs for all of those tourists who get lost in Bryce Canyon. That’s a scary situation.”

Eleven of the 12 Republicans running for the Utah 1st District seat in Congress discussed the issue of federal control of public land in Utah during a virtual debate hosted by the Vernal Area Chamber of Commerce on April 14. All agreed that Washington bureaucrats’ monopoly over much of Utah’s land area and resources must end, but the candidates’ opinions differed wildly about strategy and tactics.

This graphic illustrates how the U.S. federal government disproportionately controls vast tracts of land in the western United States.

The Enabling Act that established the state of Utah more than 100 years ago states that “ … federal ownership (of land in Utah) would be of limited duration and that the bulk of those lands would be timely disposed of by the federal government into private ownership or otherwise returned to the State.” Gibson said that the federal government simply ignores that promise, as it does the Transfer of Public Lands Act passed by the Utah Legislature in 2012. That law demanded the return of all federal land in Utah by 2014.

The land use issue isn’t limited to Utah, however. According to a report by The Washington Times, the federal government owns 50 percent of all U.S. land west of Kansas. That’s why candidate Howard Wallack, a retired business executive, believes the solution to the land use impasse is a multi-state, bi-partisan lobbying effort.

“We need a bi-partisan coalition from the western states to go back to Washington and jointly argue how federal ownership of our land adversely impacts economic development, job growth, education funding and a host of other issues,” Wallack explained. “Then we need to bring those legislators from the East out here to see our land and the way that we take care of our land and its resources. Then we have a real possibility of seeing corrective action out of Washington.”

Candidate Tina Cannon, a member of the Morgan County Council, agrees with that strategy.

“Living and serving in office in rural Utah gives you a real understanding of how this land use issue impacts county budgets. That’s true not just in Utah, but also in the majority of the West,” she added, explaining that a bi-partisan, multi-state effort would therefore be most effective in emphasizing that point to Congress.

But candidate Douglas Durbano, a constitutional attorney, disagreed strongly.

“Doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result, is called the definition of insanity,” Dubano argued. “A bi-partisan coalition sounds great, but how many years have we been talking about doing that? It never happens.

“The U.S. Constitution is very clear on this issue and we just need to get serious about it … Let’s get back to the Constitution and force the federal government to abide by it, in court if necessary.”

Resolving the Utah land use issue by litigation isn’t a new idea.

In December of 2015, the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands began the process of preparing a lawsuit against the federal government. The announced goal of that litigation is the return of more than 31 million acres of federal land to state ownership. The legal basis of that potential suit is thought to be a strict interpretation of the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution and multiple precedents established by longstanding federal court rulings.

While some legal experts have dismissed litigation as a viable approach to resolving the land use issue, candidate Bob Stevenson, the mayor of Layton, thinks that the time may be ripe for a fresh approach to the problem.

Our problem is that bureaucrats thousands of miles away think that they understand and appreciate our land better than we do,” Stevenson explained. “That’s condescending and shortsighted. Of course, we know our land better than they do. We’re in an excellent position to push that point now, because the administration of President Donald Trump is receptive to the idea of less federal regulation and control. Who knows if another administration will feel the same way?”

Candidate Katie Witt, the mayor of Kaysville, also credits the Trump administration with making recent unprecedented moves on the western land use controversy.

“The Trump administration moving the Bureau of Land Management out West is a positive development and we need to do everything in our power to capitalize on that changing attitude,“ Witt said, referring to the 2019 relocation of the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters from Washington D.C. to Grand Junction, CO. That move “coincidently” happened simultaneously with the return of nearly 1,000 acres of federal land to the state of Colorado.

“But I believe the old adage that ‘if you don’t have a seat at the table, your people are on the menu’,” Witt added. “That’s why I want to have a seat on the House Natural Resources Committee in Washington … to push back strongly against environmental extremists and ecological activists who don’t have our best interests at heart.”

Candidate Chadwick Fairbanks III, a Park City businessman, counters that retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop was a ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee for years, but “did nothing” to resolve the land use issue.

“No bi-partisan coalition is going to make a lot of progress in this fight,” Fairbanks insisted, adding that he favors a direct appeal to President Trump as the best solution to this controversy.

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  • Terry R Johnson April 19, 2020 at 8:37 am Reply

    I agree the best approch would be going straight to Trump! He is for the best interest of the people and State.

  • Pete Bengeyfiels April 19, 2020 at 11:27 pm Reply

    All western counties receive Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funds to offset the loss of the tax base because of the federal public land within their borders. The solution should be to increase the PILT funding if they need more money. This is just another sneaky effort by the States to take over land that belongs to all Americans. Maybe if they’d transition to a recreation based economy they could have a decent economy. Just like every other area in the west that has made that transition. But they’d rather fight than win.

  • David Johnson April 22, 2020 at 3:50 pm Reply

    Gibson has a troubling history. I met him once and he seemed like a really nice person. But I’ve talked to people who know him and don’t trust him, say he’s not honest. And hes had an police investigation going that hes still fighting to keep the records silent on. And just recently says he lied about his education. I don’t thing we need to take chances on people who act nice but who’s behavior is shady.

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