Can Utah afford to take on federal lands?

Aug 21, 2013

The Utah Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert want to take over public lands in the state, but nobody really knows how much income it will generate or how much it will cost. For that reason, during the last legislative session a bill was passed to do an economic study on the costs and benefits to Utah. The study is now underway, and reporter Kim Schuske was at the Capitol to hear from a group of economists that will do the study.

The Federal government is responsible for managing 30 million acres of land in Utah, but many in the legislature and public think the state can manage those lands better. Economists from the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State are collaborating on a study to figure out the economic impacts on the state if those federal lands are transferred to Utah.

The researchers met with the public on Aug. 14 to describe what they are trying to do and to get feedback. Economist Paul Jakus says one of their goals is to test the hypothesis of whether the state can manage the lands as well or better than the federal government. He says they will look at the economic impact of many different uses including grazing, energy extraction, and tourism.

Credit Utah.gov

"Therese and I are going to take a look at the economic value of recreation in the state of Utah," he said.

Jakus says they will look at the role of what public lands provide in terms of quality of life as well. They want to know what effect all of these issues have on communities in terms of economic growth, migration, and income.

They will also look at the costs of managing the lands for wildfires, species protection, and environmental degradation among other costs currently incurred by the federal government. Many members of the public asked that the health impact costs of energy extraction, refining, and transport be included in the study, but Jan Stambro says that was not in House Bill 142.

"I think the challenge that we face is trying to get across the fact that the House bill language laid out exactly what we were to provide and it really didn’t tell us to look at health effects and air effects," she said. "I mean those are a range of issues that will have to come into play at some point, but the house bill language is very definitive and that’s what we’re doing. Providing the data that was specified in that legislation."

Most of the public’s comments centered around whether the state should or should not take over federal lands, but Stambro says the purpose of this study is not to make a value judgment. Instead their goal is to gather and analyze the data, which will mostly come from federal agencies.

Even the ability of the researchers to gather that data was called into question. Pat Shea, who was the Director of the Bureau of Land Management in the 1990s, says he doubts the data from federal agencies will be accurate. He says in the case of the BLM, while the Utah state office is allocated a set amount of federal money, individuals have multiple responsibilities that sometimes extend outside of the state.

"So somebody in Utah may also have responsibilities in Wyoming or Colorado and as you go along that’s a regional question not a state question," said Shea. "So being able to divide it, you can do it, but it’s arbitrary."

Stambro disagrees and says she has been in touch with all of the federal agencies that manage lands in Utah and they have told her they can give detailed budget data.

"The agencies that we’ve talked to have told us that they will be able to get us data that I requested," she added. "So the issue isn’t can we get it for 2010, 2011, and 2012, it’s can we get it for 2002- 2010?"

Once all of the data is gathered and analyzed, the researchers will be given a number of scenarios that they will then model. One of the goals is to see which land management options will provide the most economic benefits to the state. Many of the people in the audience were concerned about this part of the study because of the potential for politics to come into play when building these scenarios. John Harja with the Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, which will develop the scenarios, says they will be made public. 

"You know people asked a lot of very good questions, we had a lot of good statements about we need to have this part or that part," said Harja. "The scenarios will probably be fairly broad more recreation, more development and we’ll see where they go. After that if we get answers that add more questions we may get even more tight."

The study is scheduled to be completed by November of 2014 and will cost $450,000.

For Utah Public Radio, I’m Kim Schuske.