When most Americans hear the phrase “public lands,” they tend to think of national parks, forests, monuments, and wilderness areas.

Utah is blessed with breathtaking examples of such lands, including Arches National Park, Dixie National Forest, Dinosaur National Monument, and High Uinta Wilderness area. Every Utahn I know supports the continued protection of these national treasures.

But the vast majority of public lands in Utah are not parks, forests, monuments, or wilderness areas. In fact, less than one fifth of Utah’s public lands fall into these categories. The vast majority of the public land in our state - about 55 percent - has been designated for “multiple use” by Congress under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 charges the BLM with the task of managing this land in a way that “takes into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and non-renewable resources, including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values.”

This land belongs to all Americans. It should be possible to balance the interests of ranchers, hikers, anglers, energy producers, loggers, bikers, and future generations of all of the above.

Unfortunately, the federal government is not living up to this mandate.

A Byzantine labyrinth of federal regulations has made active management of our public lands next to impossible. Restrictions on road construction, fuel management, and timber production have made the risk of severe wildfires much worse. Harvest volume in our nation’s forests has declined from 10 billion board feet per year in the 1980s to under 3 billion board per year today. Timber sales on BLM land have declined by similar margins.

Steps to manage fire danger, and ensure other enjoyment of the land, has fallen victim to “analysis paralysis” according to one former-Forest Service chief. The National Environmental Policy Act requires years of study for even the simplest maintenance projects, all of which can be blocked in court by just a single interest group unhappy with a management plan.

Not only do these regulations and planning delays increase the risk of severe wildfires, but they are spectacularly inefficient for recreational purposes. The Forest Service only earns 28 cents for every dollar the federal government spends on recreation management and the BLM earns just 20 cents.

There is a better way.
In 1994, the Utah state legislature created the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to manage trust land first granted to Utah by the federal government back in 1896. SITLA manages trust lands to generate revenue for Utah public schools and other trust institutions through the leasing, exchange, or sale of these lands. Trust lands are not public lands, but SITLA has navigated responsible ways to preserve public access and use of trust lands for hunting, trapping, and fishing, as well as other forms of public recreation, while still meeting its fiduciary mandate.

SITLA revenue is deposited into the Permanent School Fund endowment. Since 1994, SITLA has generated more than $1.5 billion in revenue for the Permanent School Fund, which now tops $2.5 billion. Earnings from this Permanent Fund totaled $82.7 million this school year. This supplemental education funding is distributed to each public school throughout the state on a per-pupil formula and disbursed under discretionary spending plans developed by parent-teacher councils.

SITLA uses no taxpayer money to manage the 3.4 million acre trust land portfolio, rather, it is entirely self-funded. Last year, for every dollar invested in the management of trust lands, the agency generated $6.98 for trust land beneficiary endowments.

In other words, while the federal government routinely loses hundreds of millions of dollars every year managing our public lands, state trust agencies manage to turn a profit all while preserving the land for future generations.

Not all land is best used for the same purpose. Some land, like that found within Zion National Park, is so unique, beautiful, and pristine that its best use is to be conserved “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

But other land is not as unique and might serve the American people better if it is used for grazing, timber production, watershed maintenance, or renewable energy production. Our nation has a strong tradition of using different public lands in different ways, all to benefit everyone. The Homestead Act, land grant colleges, and the Wilderness Act are all examples of the federal government disposing of diverse lands in diverse ways for the greater good.

This week lawmakers from across the country will be visiting Utah to learn more about the unique and productive ways our state manages its different public lands. I hope and expect that they will leave our state with some ideas about how the federal government can improve its public lands policy.

This oped was first published in the San Juan Record on October 23, 2019.