Utah legislature tries to funnel money to nonprofits for public lands lawsuits

Massive outdoor industry trade show gets closer to leaving state in protest

Bears Ears National Monument | BLM Flickr

It’s no secret that Utah’s elected officials have led a sustained attack against national public lands. Now it seems that leading outdoor recreation companies, which depend on public lands for their business, have had enough. Governor Gary Herbert is seeking to quell a growing movement to move the massive Outdoor Retailer trade show out of Utah, but it’s not that easy for a tiger to change its stripes. Just this week Utah’s legislature advanced a proposal to give hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to nonprofits specifically to sue the federal government over public lands.

On Monday, an appropriations subcommittee of Utah’s state legislature voted to give $250,000 to two nonprofits, the Foundation for Integrated Resource Management (FIRM) and Rural Utah Alliance. FIRM, founded in 2016, has actively opposed Bears Ears National Monument and seeks to “file legal actions and communicate with the public” on anti-public lands issues. Rural Utah Alliance, initially registered by a lawyer for Phil Lyman, the San Juan County Commissioner convicted of leading an illegal ATV ride into archaeologically-sensitive Recapture Canyon, takes taxpayer money from state and county coffers and claims to offer legal advice to counties regarding national public lands.

Representative Mike Noel, the provision’s sponsor, noted that these grants were specifically to fund litigation against the government over public lands issues. You might have heard of Representative Noel when he put his name in to lead the Bureau of Land Management, the same agency he’d rather see eliminated, or when he claimed badgers were responsible for the looting and vandalism of archaeological sites in Bears Ears National Monument.

Funding nonprofits with taxpayer money allows anti-public lands politicians to shirk transparency requirements traditionally associated with state government. It is unclear when, or even if, these nonprofits have to report on their activities. Representative Noel claims their progress will be discussed by Utah’s Constitutional Defense Council, a committee dedicated to undermining national public lands. However, the Constitutional Defense Council hasn’t even met since April 2016, leaving it unable to get a report back on the $250,000 it granted last year to the Rural Utah Alliance. When pressed on how taxpayers could know if their dollars are being spent wisely, Noel replied “some of these matters are sensitive. This is not something to be discussed in public.”

The Utah legislature’s act this week is just one in a long string of anti-public lands actions. Two weeks ago Governor Herbert signed a resolution asking the president to eliminate the recently-designated Bears Ears National Monument. In January, Utah Representative Rob Bishop inserted a provision into a House-passed bill that would value public lands at $0, greasing the skids for land disposal legislation. Last year the state legislature set aside $4.5 million to fund a potential $14 million lawsuit against the federal government seeking to seize more than 30 million acres of national public lands within the state. Governor Herbert and Senator Orrin Hatch even traveled to Natural Bridges National Monument to trash the idea of designating new national monuments.

In response to these attacks, leading outdoor recreation companies, such as Patagonia and Arc’teryx, have withdrawn from the major Outdoor Retailer trade show, which pumps $45 million into Salt Lake City’s economy. More than 30 companies have urged the trade show to find a new host city. Continuing to attack public lands only stands to harm Utah’s vibrant outdoor economy.

Will Utah’s leaders make a U-turn from their disastrous public lands policies? This week’s actions by the state legislature don’t offer much hope.

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