Utah Citizens, Others Reject Initiatives to Expand State and Federal Lands

Published September 1, 2004

A proposed initiative that would force the State of Utah to spend $150 million to purchase an unspecified amount of land from private citizens and remove it from individual use was thwarted on July 6 when supporters failed to gather enough signatures to put it on the November ballot. The defeat mirrored a wave of recent land-acquisition defeats at both the federal and state levels.

Initiative Followed Legislative Failure

The Utah Nature Conservancy began the initiative earlier this year after the Utah legislature rejected a bill sponsored by State Representative Ralph Becker (D-Salt Lake) that would have required the state to purchase privately held lands and remove them from the domain of private citizens.

To place the initiative on the November ballot, the Nature Conservancy was required by law to gather the signatures of at least 10 percent of all registered voters in 26 of the state’s 29 counties. Utah enacted the 26-county requirement in 2003. “The legislative verbiage at the time was that they wanted to make sure these petitions were done statewide, and not generated by local interests,” said Lisa Watts Baskin, an attorney who opposed the original Becker legislation but favored the initiative and supports state purchases of private land.

To meet the statewide signature requirement, the Nature Conservancy employed paid petitioners, paying $3 for every signature they could gather. In all, the Conservancy spent nearly $300,000 on signature bounties and other expenses, according to a story in the July 7 Deseret Morning News. “Because they were so well financed, I thought these folks might succeed,” said Baskin.

At the July 6 deadline to submit the necessary signatures, however, the Nature Conservancy had met its quota in only 24 of the state’s 29 counties. “We have declared it insufficient,” said state elections chief Amy Naccarato.

Having been rebuffed both in the legislature and in the citizen initiative process, the Nature Conservancy vowed to fight the initiative decision in the courts. “We feel like this is a bump in the road and we’ll still be on the ballot in November,” said Amanda Smith, president of Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air, and Quality Growth. “What we’re talking about is 200 to 300 signatures in two Senate districts. That’s a pretty small number. We’re confident we’ll prevail.”

Citizen Revolt Stalls California Land Acquisition

The Utah defeat was one of several recent setbacks for forces seeking more acquisition of currently private land by federal, state, and local governments.

In San Mateo County, California, more than 5,000 local citizens–almost one-third of the area’s registered voters–signed a petition this year opposing plans by the region’s Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to annex 140,000 acres of coastal land. According to the July 13 San Jose Mercury News, citizens signing the petition expressed concern that the district would seize land from unwilling sellers, drain tax revenues by removing land from tax-paying citizens, and inhibit farmers from cultivating their land.

Unless supporters of the proposed land acquisition invalidate more than 1,000 of the 5,000 signatures, the petition will prevent the district from annexing the coastal land.

Michigan Legislature Considers Selling State Lands

In Michigan, state legislators are considering selling off some of the state’s lands. Burdened by the costs of maintaining state lands and seeing a potential cash windfall in selling lands to private citizens eager to care for them, Michigan State Representative Jack Hoogendyk (R-Kalamazoo) has introduced legislation to sell the State Fairgrounds in Detroit.

“The fairgrounds are a valuable asset,” said Hoogendyk in support of his bill. “We should utilize the potential of this land and sell it, generating revenue, not costing the taxpayers revenue.”

The sale of the 200-acre fairgrounds, which represents only a small fraction of Michigan’s state-owned lands, would generate approximately $57 million in revenue. The state currently loses $2 million per year maintaining the site.

The Hoogendyk bill follows legislation that would allow the sale of some of the state’s municipal forest lands. The forest land sale, which the Michigan House approved by a wide margin in May 2004 and is awaiting action in the state Senate Appropriations Committee, would generate $50 million in revenue. “Supporters estimate as much as 16,000 acres might be sold in the first year at an average of $3,000 an acre. That would bring in nearly $50 million,” reported Edward Hoogterp of Booth Newspapers on May 24.

Revenues from the sale of the forest lands would be split between the state and local governments, which would in turn fund educational programs, forest projects, fire prevention projects, and other environmental initiatives.

“I guess if the state would allow us to consider selling [school-owned forest lands] and keeping half the proceeds, it would be worth thinking about,” said East Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent James Morse.

“I don’t think of it as a revenue bill at all,” said State Representative Mike Pumford (R-Newaygo). “It’s an opportunity to get rid of outholdings and get them back on the tax rolls. … This will provide tax base for local communities, and provide economic development.”

Federal Action Mirrors State Misgivings

The state-level trend to reject further expansion of government-owned lands and in some cases roll it back is being mirrored at the federal level. The U.S. Senate refused in both 2000 and 2001 to enact the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which would have required the federal government to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of land each year and remove the lands from private stewardship. Activist groups have pushed various reincarnations of CARA during the 2004 congressional session, but all such efforts have failed.

The Get Outdoors Act of 2004, which connected American obesity rates to a failure of the federal government to turn more land into national parks and other such properties, fizzled in Congress this spring. Cosponsor Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) watched in frustration as his Alaska State Republican Party explicitly repudiated his bill, which they contended would destroy the economic lifeline of Alaska communities, according to the May 26 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

In addition, federal lawmakers have targeted for removal all 2005 federal appropriations earmarked for new land acquisition programs. On June 3, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee stunned land-acquisition advocates by cutting all funds designated for new land-purchasing programs. Although the subcommittee approved $50 million that already had been committed for existing land acquisition programs and $91 million for Park Service grants to individual states, the lawmakers categorically rejected the Bush administration’s request for more than $225 million in 2005 for new land acquisition projects.

“The federal government owns a third of this nation’s land,” said Matt Streit, spokesman for the House Resources Committee. “Seeing that the government can’t properly manage what it already has, it seems prudent, especially in a time when the federal purse strings are tight, to restrict more land acquisitions.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment and Climate News.