Experts advise counties on economics of state-fed land transfer


By Troy Cressman
Capital West News

MURRAY — County officials from throughout Utah questioned academic analysts about their reported findings regarding a transfer of federal land to Utah-state control.

Experts from three different state universities including Utah State University, the University of Utah, and Weber State University, were commissioned by the Legislature to collect data on the economic feasibility of the land transfer.

Their report is thorough, spanning over 700 pages. In an effort to make the information digestible, however, the Utah Association of Counties convened the meeting to familiarize government and community leaders with the study and its key points.

The well-attended Jan. 9 meeting included several public officials from across the state. Sen. David P. Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Rep. Keven J. Stratton, R-Orem,  both strong proponents of the land transfer, attended. The majority of the participants, however, were county commissioners, many of whom were anxious to hear the conclusions on how the land transfer would impact the economic future of their counties.

When the floor opened for discussion, Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers and Uintah County Commissioner Mark Raymond expressed concern over the financing of land management. Although both Summers and Raymond support the transfer they are apprehensive about the way the proposed transfer is drafted.

“We support the transfer as long as the counties are equaled out,” Raymond said, suggesting that the counties want to ensure that the requisite funding is available to support the counties financial responsibilities.

The transfer would appropriate large revenue for the state but is vague on details pertaining to Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and funding for Secure Rural Schools (SRS), programs sometimes referred to as “western welfare.” Still, many of the counties represented at the briefing depend on heavily on this funding.

Commissioner Summers maintains that both PILT and SRS constitute earned income by the counties and are necessary in order to maintain roads and suppress fires, as well as organize search and rescue teams. Many of the costs incurred by the counties are for the delivery of services used by visitors and tourists. PILT and SRS keep these financial burdens off the backs of their county residents.

Summer’s also suggested that counties like Box Elder appreciate federal support, but he thinks the advantage of proximity gives county governments better perspective on how to manage these lands, a sentiment shared by most other commissioners. “Let us have the opportunities to run our land and make a living. We don’t want federal welfare, we just want the handcuffs off so we can feed our children,” he said.

Much of the disputed land is mineral rich, and is a source of income for schools, civil services, and other county operations. Tony Rampton, Utah director of public lands litigation, represented the governor’s office at the debriefing. He specifically identified coal and uranium and potential opportunities that could come with the land transfer. Rampton also suggested that interested parties read the report in its entirety to prevent misunderstandings.

Initially, a CapWestNews reporter was ejected from the meeting, but was allowed to return after editors argued the public interest as well as possible concerns about violations of the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act with a county association official. The association had made wide invitation to general public to attend the event on its Web site and Twitter account. In addition, the meeting was attended by a large number of public officials who are normally subject to the open meetings act. The open meetings act can be read to require notice and public access when a quorum of a public body, including when two of three county commissioners, are meeting.

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