SALT LAKE CITY — Pres. Donald Trump in April ordered a review of the size and scope of the national monuments created since 1996, which includes two monuments in the state of Utah.
The review sparked an already heated debate about whether the federal government should own land, or whether individual state governments should be entitled to the land. Trump’s signing of the executive order signaled a move toward giving land back to the states while limiting the size of “a massive federal land grab.”
“It’s time to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States,” Trump said.
Utah, like many of its Western state counterparts, is not the majority owner of the land within its state boundaries. Instead, the federal government owns a significant percentage of the land — approximately 64 percent of its 82,144 square miles.
For counties like San Juan, where much of the debate rests recently, the federal government owns approximately 61 percent of the land within its borders. However, countries like Garfield (90 percent), Wayne (86 percent), Kane (85 percent), Daggett (81 percent) and Emery (80 percent) are all overwhelmingly federally owned.
In May, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke trekked through the southern part of Utah for a listening tour in the communities surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument by former Pres. Barack Obama. Zinke has until June 10 to make a recommendation on whether Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante should remain a national monument or make changes.
For many, the issue is not about giving full access to the state of Utah, but working together with local, state and federal governments to create a partnership that works for all interested parties to protect the land while also allowing responsible access of the land to the public.
“The intent is to work together. We figure we have no choice,” Emery County public lands director Ray Petersen said. “We need to work with them, not against them. We’re not going to win that battle. We need to work with the agencies, resolve the problems that come up with stakeholders, whether it’s livestock grazing, mining issues, recreation, hunting and fishing, stuff like that.”
As Zinke and his staff review the land ownership and the various federal designations, here’s a look at who owns land in Utah, according to data obtained by the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands administration.
The federal government, which is administered by several agencies that include the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the U.S. National Park Service, the Utah State Department of Wildlife Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and in some cases the Utah State Department of State Parks, owns approximately 64 percent of the state of Utah
The Bureau of Land Management manages approximately 36 percent of the land, making it the largest single landowner in the state. The BLM uses the land for energy development, livestock grazing and recreation, in addition to protecting land for its cultural and historical purposes. Approximately 3 millions acres of Millard County is owned by the BLM, making it the largest amount of land owned in a county by the agency.
The BLM, which manages the land designated as the Bears Ears National Monument, has done well to preserve the land prior to its designation, according to San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams. He believes parts of Bears Ears should stay as a national monument, but that its current borders are too massive.
“The BLM could put up protective fencing, make a parking lot for cars. Pick 20 of these sites that are iconic and create a kiosk; make a map,” he said. “Then we don’t have people damaging the resource because they didn’t know what they were damaging and they are going to learn something about it and direct their visitation. That just seems like a win-win for everybody to me.”
The remaining amount of land owned by the federal government that is significant includes national forests, which make up 13 percent of the land, and national monuments and parks, which make up only 8 percent of land owned in the state. However, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears are still managed by the BLM.
The next largest owner of land in the state is classified as private land, which makes up approximately 21 percent of the state. This is land that is not publicly owned but could be owned by individual cities or counties. Box Elder County is the single largest owner of private land with its almost 2 million acres.
The state owns 10 percent of all land, with SITLA, an independent agency, owning 6 percent of that based on parcels of land allotted by Congress. The land SITLA manages is not public land but is set up as a trust to generate revenue for 12 state institutions, including public schools, state hospitals, colleges and universities. Trust land is scattered throughout the state and appears as a checkerboard when viewing a map.
The remaining 5 percent of land in the state is set aside as tribal land. Much of that land is found in San Juan (1,278,946 approximate acres), Uintah (473,255 approximate acres), Duchesne (393,109 approximate acres) and Grand (198,423 approximate acres) counties.
Regardless of who owns the land, Adams said, “The people that live in the county should have a say in how this whole public lands issue came about.”