Stripping Utah Public Land Protections Would Defy Voters' Wishes
State and U.S. majorities support keeping national forest and monument safeguards
From the towering peaks of the High Uinta Mountains to the panoramic splendor of Canyon Country, Utah’s landscapes are varied, unique, and prized. The state’s 13 national parks and the 15 million people who visit them each year are testaments to the national and global significance of those natural wonders, as are Utah’s expansive national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and national monuments. But a major threat to this grandeur is looming: The Beehive State stands to lose protections of almost half of its public lands based on moves by the Trump administration over the past 16 months.
Public land protection in Utah began with the designation of Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, which 10 years later became Zion National Park. Over the next century, Congress created a dozen other parks, along with wilderness areas such as those along the Wasatch Front and the San Rafael Swell, national forest roadless areas, and—under the Antiquities Act—eight national monuments.
These areas are the foundation of a burgeoning outdoor recreational economy that employs 110,000 Utahans and generates $3.9 billion in wages and salaries, $12.3 billion in consumer spending, and $737 million in state and local tax revenue. By 2017, more than 11 million acres of publicly-owned lands within the state were protected, but then began a dramatic reversal.
In December of that year, President Trump issued a proclamation removing almost 2 million acres from the Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments—a move that is being challenged in court but, for now, stands. Then, in late February 2019, Utah Governor Gary Herbert petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to remove safeguards that have been in place for almost 20 years for 90 percent of the state’s national forest lands. These places have been secured as roadless areas to conserve watersheds that provide clean drinking water for downstream communities, along with recreational areas and some of the state’s best fish and wildlife habitat.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is considering the petition, which would remove almost 4 million acres of forest lands from current safeguards and open them to commercial logging and roadbuilding.
In sum, President Trump’s proclamation and Governor Herbert’s petition could shrink the protected publicly owned lands in Utah from 11.6 million acres to 6 million, a 48-percent reduction. Neither of these actions is popular with the public. A Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted last year found that 64 percent of Utah voters support keeping the Bears Ears National Monument at its original size . A separate, national poll found that 59 percent of the general public believes that the federal government should not exempt states from the roadless rule.
The Pew Charitable Trusts urges the administration to conserve these public lands for future generations to enjoy and explore.
Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Public Lands and Rivers Conservation program.