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Ask an Expert about Utah's Public Lands

Professors Jeff Nichols and Brent Olson

 Professors Jeff Nichols and Brent Olson.  Photo by Michael Eggenberger (’08, ’13, MPC ’16)

Big picture: What is going on between Outdoor Retailer, public lands, and the Utah government? What is the big deal?

Outdoor Retailer trade shows are twice-yearly conventions for members of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). Some members of OIA have argued for years that Utah elected officials don't properly value and protect their public lands, specifically the Forest Service and BLM lands; lands managed by the federal government. There is much less angst over national parks, although we must remember that most of Utah's parks began as monuments, as did Grand Teton National Park, which sparked huge local protests at the time.

Over the last several years, a number of Utah legislators have been part of the charge to get some of those federal lands transferred to state control. The breaking point came with the legislature's resolution calling on the current administration to rescind President Obama's declaration of the Bears Ears National Monument, and the governor's failure to reject that or, more explicitly, declare support for the monument. In general, the retailers wanted more explicit support for the notion of keeping those public lands in federal hands. The Outdoor Retailers wanted to remind Utah elected officials that their vibrant and growing industry largely depends on those federal lands that belong to all Americans. Underlying this is a fear that if those lands became state property, too much land would end up being exploited by private, extractive industries—oil, gas, coal, grazing, and other development.

What type of impact on environmental policy do you think Outdoor Retailer’s decision to leave will have?

I'm afraid that it might have very little impact. I believe that the legislators are entrenched in their positions and the Retailers have made their decision. I hope that the pendulum will swing back toward more concern for environmental protection but I don't see much sign of that.

Why are state lawmakers so adamant about controlling the public lands?

Utah is about two-thirds federal land. Nevada is over 80 percent, while states east of the Mississippi have tiny percentages of federal land. That means the big federal land agencies (and we should include the Department of Defense) wield enormous influence over big swathes of the state; land that might otherwise be more intensively grazed, mined, cut for timber, or managed for recreation by state agencies. State lawmakers usually frame this as local control: Local people making decisions for the land within their county or state. Much of the desire for state or local control is economic and cultural. Legislators want "good jobs," which they argue used to exist, for example, in mining and grazing cattle. Most analysts say macroeconomic changes, the limitations of the western environment, and necessary environmental protections mean that those older extractive industries can't operate like they used to.

Do you think there is a middle ground between allowing the states to control some of the public lands while also ensuring environmental protection? In short, could there be a policy compromise?

In the current political climate, I don't see much chance of a negotiated common ground or policy compromise. I believe the environmental groups and citizens who care about public lands protection, climate change, etc., will be fighting a defensive battle for some time to come. Frankly, it comes down to many people (and I am one of them) believing that trained people—many of them scientists—in the federal land agencies, despite those agencies' faults (and they are legion), do a better job of protecting those lands than the state would.

In a larger sense, those people believe that the nation made a vital and necessary decision over a century ago to keep big chunks of the public domain in the hands of the federal government, rather than selling or giving it to private interests, as had been the policy since the founding of the country. That was part of a realization that dawned on a lot of people around the 1890s when it became clear that resources were finite—we had cut vast forests, dug huge quantities of minerals, and filled up much of the East. People with power decided we should protect some of what was left from development (national parks and monuments) and sustainably manage the economic development of most of it (national forests, what became BLM lands). By the time they made those decisions, the East was almost wholly in private hands; only the West still had big chunks of public domain. Many Utahns, back in the 1890s, pushed the federal government to take that management role; e.g. to fight deforestation, limit overgrazing, and manage timber leases. I think most Americans—and probably most Utahns—still agree with that. Despite that federal protection, plenty of destructive boom-and-bust development on public lands continues to this day, but federal management has played a largely positive role in mitigating the damage.

Is it really a big deal that the Outdoor Retailer show is leaving if their contract is expiring anyway?

It's a very big deal. Utah's public lands have an international reputation. While the shows might have left anyway, the state could have avoided taking unnecessarily antagonistic actions. The economic impact of the loss of the shows will be substantial (an estimated $45 million dollars per year, according to the Deseret News). The economic impact if Utah lost public lands themselves would be enormous. The environmental damage from the over-exploitation of Utah's public lands would be catastrophic.

Do you think the Outdoor Retailer show would have left if Obama had not designated Bears Ears as a National Monument?

I really don't know. Those lands are totally worthy of monument status and deserve protection. The monument declaration didn't spur the Retailers to leave—they overwhelmingly support it. The Retailers reacted to the actions of the state's elected officials and their fears about what legislators’ motivations were.



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