A local approach to our public lands

The recent debate about President Obama renaming Mount McKinley to Denali has missed the mark on both sides. The president argued the mountain should carry the traditional Native American name, but some from Ohio and elsewhere argued the change was disrespectful to Ohio native President William McKinley, who was killed in office in 1901. Instead of asking what the mountain should be called, perhaps we should be wondering why anyone in DC gets to decide what a mountain in Alaska is called? Shouldn’t the people who live there have at least a little say? 

The debate reminded me of how I feel every two years when a group of Eastern congressmen introduce a bill to lock up thousands of square miles in my district in southern Utah as a wilderness area. It would be comical if it weren’t so obnoxious. Why should people who don’t live in my state, and have probably never even been there, get to decide what happens to that land? 

{mosads}The technical answer is, of course, that the mountain in Alaska and the beautiful red rock in southern Utah happen to be on federal land. As with all federal lands, the federal government is in charge, not the state or local governments. Federal ownership means the western communities which surround that land and which are most impacted by the decisions of federal land managers have little to no say in the name, let alone the policies that govern that land.  

That might be merely irritating if the feds did a decent job managing public lands. But they don’t. So it’s much more than just irritating; it’s a disaster. The U.S. Forest Service spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year fighting wildfires that are largely a result of the agency’s own inability to manage the forests. And wildfires are only the most visible of the failures. Others include a chronic disadvantage in funding public schools, reduced energy development from bureaucratic foot-dragging, regular disputes with local ranchers over grazing rights, and the ongoing problems of starved wild horses which the Bureau of Land Management refuses to manage. 

The good news is that there is growing recognition that something needs to change. Earlier this summer I formed the Federal Lands Action Group to explore creative ways Congress can give states and local governments more control over public lands. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, and six additional Congressmen from both western and eastern states joined me. In our first hearing in July, we heard compelling testimony describing how states have managed their public lands far more effectively than the federal government has managed its. Dr. Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland pointed to several eastern states with extensive state forest systems that are managed very efficiently, belying the myth that states don’t have the expertise or ability to manage large swaths of public land.  The truth is that not only canstates manage public lands, they can do it for less money and with better results.  

So the president decides what we should call mountains in Alaska. The president decides the best way to manage a forest. The president decides the best way to extract precious minerals, all without any local or state involvement. It is offensive to those of us who live in the West. And it makes no sense. As we continue our work on the Federal Lands Action Group, I’m confident we’ll develop innovative ideas that will empower local communities to have a say in the decisions impacting the public lands upon which they depend. That empowerment of local officials is the only way to accomplish what the federal government has proven totally incapable of doing—managing public lands in a way that’s beneficial both to the lands and to all those who use them. 

Stewart has represented Utah’s 2nd Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Appropriations and the Intelligence committees.

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