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Pricey Lands Study Overlooks Economic Value of Conserved Lands

Judy Fahys

State lands officials gave a status report to lawmakers last week on the potential costs of taking over federal lands within Utah. What the report didn’t talk about – environmental costs -- is raising concerns for conservation advocates.

A bill passed two years ago demands that federal agencies hand over control of about 30 million acres of public lands to Utah by the end of the year or the state could pursue a legal solution. Toward that end, lawmakers have ordered a study on the economics of a federal lands transfer.

But, so far, the report looks hard at energy, mining and other resource extraction, but it does not place any value on conserving the environment

“The purpose here is much like any CEO that might look at acquiring another company -- to figure out the baseline data of assets, liabilities, expenditures, revenues and figure out what the situation is,” says John Harja is Governor Gary Herbert’s public lands policy coordinator. “The study is not designed to exclusively look at making changes that directly pull revenue off the land. It’s the bigger picture.”

By the time the report’s due in November, Harja says it will look at air pollution, wilderness and possibly other environmental values.

Allison Jones is director of the Wild Utah Project. She’s among the critics who say lawmakers should also be tallying the economic benefit of leaving the lands in their natural, unspoiled state.

Jones offers the example of the freshwater coming from Big Cottonwood Canyon.

“It’s essential that we don’t mess that up,” she says,  “and overdevelop these lands or develop them at all because, as the recreation industry has said in their own words, this would be basically killing the goose that lays the golden egg for our economy.”

Jones says leaving the land wild means roughly $5 billion a year.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Jim Dabakis is a Salt Lake City Democrat who questions spending more than $500,000 in taxpayer dollars to pay for the report.

“We ought to be asking all the questions and not creating a propaganda piece which will justify what most of the Legislature and the governor want to come out of this,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s a rigged report. They’re not asking the right questions, and they don’t want honest answers.”

The economic analysis is being done by Utah State University, Weber State University and the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah. It has taken nearly 10,000 hours and has cost more than $560,000 so far.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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