116th Public Lands Package

February 11, 2019

Madam President,

A little over a month ago, I stood before this body to object to the massive public lands package that it was poised to pass. This bill – 680 pages long – was released at 10am that morning. My staff and I had not seen it beforehand, and were given no time to read it.

This is, of course, bad process. This is not the way legislation should be written and debated; and it is not the way that it should be passed.

But in addition to the bad process, I objected because I suspected that it was also bad policy – bad policy that would disproportionally and negatively affect the state of Utah.

Now, more than a month later, I have had time to read through the bill. And unfortunately, those suspicions have been confirmed.

This bill perpetuates a terrible standard for federal land policy in the West, and particularly for Utah.

To give some background, the federal government owns more than 640 million acres of land – a total larger than the entireties of France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy, the U.K., Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands combined. 

That’s a problem. Especially because it’s distributed unevenly across the country, with the West bearing the brunt of this burden. In fact, in my home state of Utah, two thirds of the lands are owned by the federal government.

This is an enormous amount of land. And make no mistake, it imposes an enormous burden on my state.

So, in light of this, what exactly are my objections to this bill, Mr. President? Well, there are a few.

First, it permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Passed by Congress in 1964, the LWCF was enacted to promote and preserve access to recreation opportunities on public lands. An admirable and worthy goal.

So the fund was set up to be the principal source of money for federal land acquisition, and to assist states in developing recreational opportunities. Originally, it directed 60% of its funds to be appropriated for state purposes, and 40% for federal purposes.

Unfortunately, the program has since drifted far from its original intent and has been rife with abuse.

In 1976, the law was amended to remove the 60% state provision, stating simply that “not less than 40%” must be used for federal purposes, while remaining silent on whether a state would receive a penny.

The result? It has been used more for federal land acquisition than to actually access or care for the land we manage. 61% of funds have historically been used for acquisition, compared to the 25% that have been allocated to state grants. And so millions of acres of land have been added to the federal government’s already vast estate solely through the LWCF program.

Not surprisingly, the federal government has been a poor steward of this land. The sheer magnitude of unfunded needs on federal lands is staggering. 

According to a 2017 CRS report, the maintenance backlog on federal land is up to $18.6 billion. Wildfires have run rampant in the West, which the government has failed to prevent. Ill-kept roads and trails have sometimes actually kept citizens from accessing our national treasures. 

Furthermore, none of the current LWCF funds are directed toward maintenance or upkeep of these lands, including in our national parks.

But for years now, Congress has perpetuated the status quo of this broken program by reauthorizing it in giant omnibus spending bills or continuing resolutions without even the slightest, incremental reforms.

Worse still would be making reauthorization permanent. Indeed, it would deny us any regular opportunity to actually reform and improve the program.

Second, the bill creates another 1.3 million acres of wilderness in the West – half of it in Emery County, Utah.

Now at the outset, wilderness designations might sound like a good thing. And sometimes they are.

But this highly restrictive designation limits far more activities than is necessary to actually protect the land.

In fact, a wilderness designation prohibits almost all activity: this land usually cannot be used for any commercial activity or infrastructure, or developed for recreational purposes, or traveled across by car or bicycle, to say nothing of timber harvesting or agriculture.

And in a state like Utah, where the federal government owns more than two thirds of the land, these designations have big consequences.

The amount of federal land in Utah already sets us at a great disadvantage to begin with. While private owners would pay property taxes on this land to the state, the federal government does not – so Utah is deprived of what should be a huge source of revenue and opportunity.

That means our schools are underfunded. Local governments are crippled. Fire departments are, ironically, depleted, and therefore unable to properly take care of the lands they are charged to protect in the first place.

And with so much of the land in the grip of federal bureaucrats, it is again limited in its use for development, infrastructure, and jobs that are crucial to our economy.

But with further wilderness designations by Congress, it’s an even tighter grip. Citizens must go to the federal government, hat in hand, to ask permission for any use of the land at all – whether to dig a well, build a road, bury a cable, or do virtually anything on it.

So designating more than 661,000 acres of wilderness in Emery County is of no small consequence, Mr. President.

Finally, this bill does nothing to address the imminent threat that Utah faces from unilateral executive land grabs through the Antiquities Act.

To be clear, anything red on this map may be designated as a national monument overnight solely at the discretion of the president.

The Antiquities Act was intended to give the President the power to declare land already owned or controlled by the federal government a “National Monument” by fiat, in order to protect specific historic and cultural objects in the case of an emergency.

But instead of reserving the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected” – as required by law – presidents have designated enormous, million-acre monuments far beyond the scope of the objects in need of immediate protection.

And these monument designations – perhaps the most restrictive of all land designations – often do more harm than good. They radically undermine a state’s economy by prohibiting energy production, mining, fishing, ranching, recreation, and a myriad of other uses.

Furthermore, without allowing Congress or the state legislature any actionable input, they effectively silence the voices of the people closest to and most connected to the lands, depriving them of any say in the process.

Take the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Clinton in 1996. The Clinton administration designated 1.7 million acres of land – or about 67% of Kane county – for the monument, all the while claiming that grazing would remain at “historical” levels. But this promise was not kept. Since then, the BLM has revoked permits and closed much-needed rangeland. Today, grazing is down almost one-third from what it had been twenty years ago.

Ranchers were hit hard. Many lost their ability to fence in water resources and maintain roads around them. In some cases, they could no longer bring water to their cattle, and many families were forced to reduce their herds, sometimes by half.

And, of course, there was the designation of Bears Ears National Monument by President Obama. The citizens of San Juan County woke up on December 28, 2016 to find out that the Obama administration had unilaterally designated 1.35 million acres for the monument overnight, even though they had specifically pleaded against it. 

Since the passage of the Antiquities Act, presidents have designated 77.85 million acres of land as national monuments – and 87 percent of that has been in the last 40 years. And of the land designated in the last 25 years, 3.23 million acres, or 28%, are in Utah.

What was intended to be an Act of cultural preservation has deteriorated into a greedy, harmful, federal land grab. And as it currently stands, there is always the threat of a decision coming down from on high that will utterly decimate the livelihoods of the people of Utah.

Mr. President, there is no good reason for this.

Already two other states have felt the abuse of the Antiquities Act within their borders and received relief.

In the 1950s, Wyoming and Alaska successfully called on Congress to grant them Antiquities Act protections. And so as result of their efforts, in Wyoming, any monument designation must be approved by Congress; and in Alaska, any designation made by presidential fiat that exceeds 5,000 acres must be approved by Congress.

There is no reason that the people of Utah should be treated differently.

There is no reason that Utahns should live under the constant threat of this abuse, Mr. President.

That’s why we’ve offered an amendment that would remedy this. 

With a permanent reauthorization of the LWCF – which will only result in a greater federal footprint – and with the roughly 660,000 acres of new wilderness designation in Utah, I fear my state is at great risk for yet another monument designation.

And thus, at a bare minimum, Utah needs and deserves the same protection that Wyoming has received. So our amendment would add just two words: “Or Utah.” Without it, I simply cannot vote for this bill.

There is much that is wrong with our federal land policy in the West; and unfortunately, much that this bill fails to correct.

Utahns, and Americans, deserve better than the stranglehold that the federal government is exercising over so much of our country’s lands.

And yet, Washington greedily tries to grab more, year after year, imposing tighter and tighter restrictions; all the while failing to maintain the lands that it already owns.

These lands won’t be “national treasures for everyone” if we can’t take care of them in the first place. Indeed, they will be treasures for no one if we continue with the same pattern of neglect.

Let me be very clear. My opposition today is not about whether our national treasures, parks, monuments, and lands should be protected. It is about how to do that, and who is best equipped and knowledgeable to do it well.

What I am asking for is that Utah’s elected leaders at least be given a chance to weigh in on these matters, rather than these decisions being made by just one person.

And indeed, the best way to ensure these national treasures are protected – and recreation is available – is to empower our states and local communities, who understand and appreciate their backyards best. They know which land to prioritize, and they know how to make that happen.

Just look at state and local ballot initiatives in the past few decades to see the evidence. Since 1988, these state initiatives have approved over $72 billion in combined expenditures for recreation and conservation purposes.

These things matter to states and local communities – and they have already raised huge funds and found ways to preserve and competently manage their lands.

Protection of our lands will happen without the federal government’s thumb on the scale – and it will happen in a way that actually makes these treasures available to future generations.

We will not be helping to preserve them, however, by denying access to the people who are in the best position to preserve them – the people who live, work, and recreate on them; whose very lives are interwoven with them.

And we will not be helping the American people by depriving them of their livelihoods.

That is why I have introduced amendments that would make reforms and improvements to the LWCF, the Emery County wilderness designation bill, and others provisions in this package; amendments that would steer our lands policy in a better direction – at least as a starting point. These are conversations worth having, and we ought to have them.

But at the bare minimum, with the least shred of compromise, we could add just those two words to this bill – “Or Utah” – to give Utahns justice, to give them a voice in managing and caring for their lands.

I yield the floor.

As prepared for delivery.