State lawmakers have drafted no fewer than four bills aimed at creating a showdown between Utah and the federal government over vast federal land holdings in the state.
Legislators want the federal government to either sell off these public lands or cede them to the state. They cite language in the state’s enabling act, the legislation passed by Congress creating the state of Utah, that they claim created an obligation on the part of the federal government to divest itself of public lands within the state following statehood.
Tooele County, where 82 percent of all land is owned by the federal government, would be among the counties most affected by a change in federal land ownership.
“One of the plans right now is to have the federal government turn over the lands to a state-created public lands commission that would guide the use of the lands,” said Jerry Hurst, Tooele County commissioner.
The commission would then manage the land for multiple uses, including open space, public access, and the sustainable use of natural resources, said Hurst. The commission would also determine what lands would be sold to private owners.
Private ownership of the public lands could reap huge financial benefits for the county, as the property would be taxed.
“The estimate I have seen shows that if all the Bureau of Land Management land in the county were taxed at the greenbelt rate, the lowest possible tax rate, then the county’s total property tax would double,” said Hurst.
In 2010, real property tax collections for all taxing entities in the Tooele county added up to $31.9 million, according the Utah State Tax Commission. The largest recipient of property is the Tooele County School District, which received $26.8 million of the $31.9 million collected in 2010.
Currently the federal government does chip in some money to compensate for their un-taxed property. In 2011, Tooele County received $3.2 million in Payment in Lieu of taxes, or PILT money, from the federal government which adds up to 87 cents per acre of all federal land in the county.
“That’s just a pittance for what the county would get if the land were privately owned,” said Chris Sloan, a real estate broker with Group 1 Real Estate in Tooele and chairman of the Tooele County Republican Party.
The BLM owns 43 percent of Tooele County. The next largest chunk of federal land is owned by the military, which owns 35 percent. The Forest Service owns 4 percent.
Right now the state isn’t looking to gain ownership of military bases.
“The discussions I have heard all center primarily around BLM and Forest Service property,” said Hurst.
Hurst said he believes the state realizes that the military bases are an asset to the state and locally the military has worked with the Tooele County commission on road projects and joint public-private ventures for economic development.
Primary potential uses for Tooele County’s public lands include grazing, mineral extraction and recreation, according to Hurst.
While these uses are currently allowed under BLM management, Hurst argues that local control by either the state or county of these federal lands would result in better use of the resources.
“The local BLM people we deal with, the ones that are right here on the ground with us, are great to work with,” said Hurst. “But the idea that somebody miles away in Washington, D.C., knows more about how our land in Utah should be used is ludicrous.”
The largest private landowners in the county use their land for grazing for either cattle or sheep.
Maintaining access to BLM land for grazing was a concern when in December 2010 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to designate millions of acres in the western United States as wilderness area, including land in Tooele County, making it off-limits for grazing or any access other than by foot or horseback, Hurst said.
Salazar, faced with opposition from congressional Republicans, announced the curtailment of his plans in June 2011.
It is also not unlikely that valuable mineral deposits may be found on public lands, once the state can access the land and look for them, Hurst said, and access to recreation on federal lands is also important.
The BLM has closed roads in the Deep Creek Mountain range near Ibapah, said Hurst.
Whether it is for horseback riding, hiking or off-road vehicle use for county residents or tourists from outside the county, public lands have an important role to play as a recreation attraction, which helps the local economy.
Dave Carberry, a Stockton resident and president of the Soldier Canyon Irrigation Company, is terrified at the thought of the state or county taking over management of BLM lands.
“The ramifications of local or state control would be a catastrophe,” said Carberry. “Local politicians, whether at the state or county level, would dictate the allocation of lands according to the desires of their constituents. There would be an immediate loss of wild open space with ATVs allowed to run amuck.”
The federal government manages public lands with a much broader perspective than local control would allow, according to Carberry.
The majority of BLM land consists of swaths that run north and south along the Oquirrh, Stansbury, Onaqui, Sheeprock, and Cedar mountains in eastern Tooele County, including land in Skull Valley, a pathway along the I-80 corridor, land in the Dugway Range along the county’s southeast border, and land in the Deep Creek Mountains near Ibapah.
Sloan said he doesn’t know how much of Tooele County’s public land would end up being sold or who might be interested in buying chunks of BLM land if the state is successful at forcing the federal government to relinquish their claim to the land.