Walt Dabney, the former superintendent of the National Park Service, has been serving the country’s public lands for more than four decades. On Monday, April 9, he shared his experience through a public presentation hosted by the Grand County League of Women Voters.
“The League of Women Voters does education on matters of public policy,” explained Carey Dabney, Walt’s wife and a member of the league. “It does advocacy work, so this fits in with our mission to help educate the community on issues that impact them. Give them an educational background and let them make informed decisions.”
A crowd of 75 people gathered in the library’s conference room to listen to Walt Dabney as he explained the history of the country’s public lands. Dabney, who carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his breast pocket, began by stating that once public lands are granted, it is difficult to legally reduce them.
“If Congress decided they were going to give some of it away, then that’s an act of Congress and that’s the only way they can do that,” Dabney said. “There’s a whole lot of other people in New York and California and Texas that own and use those lands too and have a say.”
The retired park superintendent referred to the genesis of Utah’s statehood, explaining that it was created as a public lands state.
“When people talk about how Utah is 79 percent federally owned, and people say they want their land back, well it wasn’t ever yours,” Dabney said.
In his years of experience with NPS, Dabney had the opportunity to learn about the function of parks, and why they are so important to preserving natural ecosystems. He argues that many of the parks are geographically too small to support the animals and plants that reside within them.
“If I could wave a wand and do one fix, using GPS and other technology we have access to now, I would go to every National Park Service system, and I would figure out from a hydrological standpoint or a habitat standpoint, how big that park should be, understanding that eventually every one of those parks is going to be an island in a sea of incompatible development and/or use,” Dabney said. “If they’re not big enough to stand on their own, and we don’t do something pretty quick, they will no longer be viable parks.”
Dabney also examined the economic impact of parks on their surrounding cities.
“What makes sense for the economy?” he asked. “To me, the answer is ... what would you be doing here? If anything made sense to be doing here, they’d be doing it. Drilling comes and goes. In the right place, I don’t have a problem with oil and gas,” Dabney continued. “The skilled people that are doing the drilling and the production, they just go from town to town or field to field following whatever is going on. And then, boom, there’s nothing. There has never been a bust cycle in tourism. Even in 2008 when the market collapsed, Moab was busy. Land prices and housing prices did not go down.”
Dabney also considered the possibility of public lands being transferred to state control.
“BLM doesn’t make much money here. The only thing that manages to support BLM is that people from 49 other states are helping to pay for them,” he explained. “If that land belongs to the state, none of that federal money will be coming in, and Utah has to make it work.” He continued, “The financial drain if they cannot make it work, what are they going to have to do with it? They’re going to have to sell it.”
After the presentation, Carey Dabney reflected on the benefit of the event.
“The takeaway that I got from this that I hope others would get is that land has always been controversial, it’s always been complex.” She continued, “If we think that what’s going on now is so horrible and over the top, this has been going on since the beginning of this country, and if you look at the history of public lands, the compromises that have been made in terms of protecting various parts of the public lands, they have worked out very well.”