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Senator Mike Lee Argues For State Management Of Public Land At Controversial Moab Meeting

A man holds up a sign that reads "state of Utah constitution. Article 3, right to public lands / domain disclaimed by the State of Utah, May 8, 1895" while a policeman talks to him.
Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Around half of the audience at the meeting brought signs to protest state control or privatization of public lands. Police asked protestors to hold signs at chest level or leave.

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, hosted a roundtable for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining in Moab on Friday. He chairs that subcommittee, and invited Republican politicians from Utah, Arizona, Indiana, and Alaska to take part in the discussion. He framed it as a way to raise awareness of public land issues in Washington, D.C.

“We can’t continue to talk about public lands as if they were one single monolithic thing,” Lee said. “It is, I believe, time to have a more balanced conversation about the many important uses amongst the many forms of public lands.”

Over the course of the meeting, Lee asked the participants, who included Utah representatives Rob Bishop and John Curtis, and state officials, about Utah’s success in managing state and federal public lands. 

Lee clarified that he was not advocating turning national parks, recreation areas, or wilderness areas over to the state to be sold or leased by extractive industries. But that did little to appease audience members, who held up signs protesting the state’s management of public lands and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, which holds state lands in trust for Utah public schools and is legally mandated to profit from the land. 

There was no public comment period during the meeting, and police requested protestors hold their signs at or below chest height. After disobeying the orders, some protestors walked out or were asked to leave.

Photo of Murkowski and Lee at a table, while Lee speaks into a microphone.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Utah Sen. Mike Lee invited Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, to Moab to learn more about Utah's efforts to control federal public lands.

“There’s not a single member of the legislature … who believes that Utah should ever privatize or sell the crown jewels of Utah’s public lands system,” Lee said. “This is about the other stuff … the land that’s not Delicate Arch, that’s just out there.” 

He said the state should be able to sell this “garden variety BLM land,” referring to federal public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, to fund education, law enforcement, and emergency medical services. 

The Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program (PILT), through which the federal government pays local governments that contain federal land, is supposed to provide revenue for those services. But Lee and other participants said the rate of reimbursement set by PILT is too low to make up for lost property taxes. And Grand County Councilwoman Mary McGann, who attended the meeting as an audience member, agreed. 

“The amount of PILT money we get is inappropriate. It’s way too small,” she said.

McGann said she’s not opposed to the privatization and development of some BLM land in Grand County to pay for services, but that she was unhappy with the way Lee approached the conversation. 

“This panel is all one point of view,” she said. “There’s no one on the panel that wants to see public lands maintained.” 

In addition to discussing privatization, meeting participants talked about local management of public lands as recreation areas or state parks. Bishop brought up Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, which was federal land before being purchased by the state in 1963, and the newly-formed Golden Spike National Historic Park, which has a citizen panel that can weigh in on and even veto federal decisions regarding the park. 

“That’s what we’re trying to do, is give more people a chance to say what they would like to do on public land,” he said. 

Lee and other participants emphasized the importance and benefits of local control of public lands throughout the meeting, using the U.S. Forest Service as an example. Lee said the Forest Service refused the state’s offer to help curb bark beetle infestations in national forests, which he says eventually killed enough timber to raise the risk of wildfires. 

“In many instances it comes down to a difference between how far a decision maker lives from the land in question,” he said. “In the case of federal land managers, ultimate authority might stretch 1,800 miles back to Washington.”

Photo of a woman with a sign that says "our lands deserve a better fate than being owned by Utah state."
Credit Kate Groetzinger/KUER
Mary O'Brien joined people in protesting the privatization or state management of public lands. She works for a conservation group called the Grand Canyon Trust.

But some people disagree. Mary O’Brien lives in Castle Valley, near Moab, and works for the Grand Canyon Trust as its Utah Forest Program Director. O’Brien held up a sign at the meeting that said, “Our lands deserve a better fate than being owned by Utah state.” 

She says federal agencies have the advantage of seeing the big picture when it comes to land management. 

“You’re more likely to think of climate change. You’re more likely to have processes like the National Environmental Policy Act ... You’re more likely to think of wide-ranging species and water that’s going between states and so on,” she said. 

O’Brien added that, while there’s room for state entities to weigh in on public lands, the federal government should maintain ultimate control. 

“I think the question shouldn’t be, ‘Can [the state] manage — i.e. control — the land,’” she said. “Can they contribute research, expertise? Absolutely. But this question of taking over management of public lands — no.”

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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