As activists stood silently around the room with signs advocating to “keep public lands in public hands” and to “protect wild Utah,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, broke the fourth wall Friday, Oct. 25, during a roundtable discussion in Moab to say that “not a single member” of the Utah Legislature or the U.S. Congress wants Utah to be “anything but a public lands state.”
Lee convened the meeting of federal, state and local Republican legislators to “examine successes in state management of state and federal public lands in Utah.” The meeting was well attended by members of the public, filling the large meeting space in the Grand Center and leaving only standing room by the time the discussion got underway.
Early in the meeting, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, began her opening statements, local residents around the room held high signs with messages opposing SITLA, promoting the protection of Bears Ears National Monument, admonishing the legislators to address climate change, and a mishmash of other messages.
Lee later addressed many of those messages about public lands, making the argument to put Utah’s federal lands in local hands, pointing to the Sand Flats Recreation Area—a Grand County-managed parcel of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management—as an example of one such successful project.
Lee made the argument late in the roundtable discussion, after hearing from state and local officials, some of whom are directly responsible for public land management, that nobody in the state or federal legislature was looking to “privatize” Utah’s public lands. He also argued that, although many lands in Utah are federally owned, that does not necessarily mean they must be federally managed.
“In many circumstances, what we’re talking about here is not whether or not to have public land—in fact, that’s not what we’re discussing at all,” Lee said. “We’re talking about who owns it, who manages it, and what the circumstances are for its ownership and management.”
How Utah’s state forester views the matter
Utah State Forester Brian Cottam got a seat at the roundtable discussion, and Lee called on him to answer whether he felt he had sufficient resources to manage state lands in an “environmentally responsible fashion,” and how that compared to the abilities of his federal counterparts.
“I’ll tell you, unequivocally, yes, the state legislature has been extremely supportive of our efforts to be proactive and get work done on our state and sovereign lands,” Cottam replied
Cottam went on to say that “the bigger responsibility” he had was partnering with federal agencies—the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in particular, to “protect our communities, our infrastructure, our water sources from wildfire.” He said that making those partnerships work was the big challenge.
“I don’t control that land,” Cottam said, referring to federally managed lands. “So, we have to work incredibly hard, creatively, to figure out: How do we partner with those federal agencies? How do we compel them to get the work done that needs to be done in order to protect our communities?”
Cottam went on to say that this challenge—working with federal agencies to protect local people and resources—extended beyond his office to the Utah Department of Natural Resources and Division of State Parks.
Lee blames feds; critics blame legislators
Lee later highlighted these challenges to argue for federal-local partnerships in managing federal lands, spinning a scenario in which timber growth and a bark beetle infestation goes ignored by federal land managers despite cautionary warnings of wildfire risk from, for example, the state forester. “And then we wait, and lightning literally and metaphorically strikes, and the unthinkable happens—the entirely foreseeable happens,” Lee said.
Lee’s critics, however, see the matter differently. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a staunch defender of Utah’s wilderness areas and of expanding the land that receives the designation, criticized Lee for his representation of federal land managers.
“It continues to be incredibly disingenuous to watch prominent members of Congress disparage federal land managers for lacking the resources or support to manage public lands, when it is Congress who is simultaneously and systematically cutting those same agencies’ funding,” said Kya Marienfeld, a wildlife attorney for SUWA, after the meeting.
Marienfeld went on to say that Utahns understand the invaluable nature of these public lands, many having them as metaphorical (and sometimes literal) backyards, and that regardless of designation, “there are millions of acres of unspoiled and pristine public lands across Utah that we, and all Americans, would like to remain that way.”