Contention over public lands has a long and storied history in Utah. Monumental battles have been fought over wilderness designation, RS2477 roads, restrictions on grazing and mineral extraction, designation of national monuments, and even control and ownership of the land itself.

Today, many Utahns enjoy the use of public lands for recreation, and not many people in urban Utah believe the federal government will or should relinquish ownership of any large portions of the millions of acres of land it controls. The days of the Sagebrush Rebellion are long over.

Still, in rural Utah, federal ownership of the vast majority of land is still a very raw and sensitive issue. One person who feels the friction acutely is Congressman John Curtis, who represents the 3rd Congressional district. His district includes a chunk of urban Utah in Salt Lake and Utah counties, but he also represents public land counties like Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan.

Curtis feels the pain of his constituents trying to create well-paying jobs and develop the economies of counties that are owned more than 90 percent by the federal government. It’s a difficult proposition. Tourism is very important, but most jobs in the service industry won’t adequately support a family.

While privatizing federal land, or turning large chunks over to the state, is highly unlikely, Curtis believes a solution exists that would significantly reduce tensions over public lands, while also boosting rural economies.

That answer is to increase federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to a level that provides a reasonable tax base in public lands counties. It’s a simple, but difficult, solution.

In a recent interview, Curtis noted that in many states, federal ownership of land is miniscule. Property taxes are derived from 90 percent or more of the land. That provides funds for local and state government, education, local police agencies, parks and recreation, and so forth.

In some Utah counties, less than 10 percent of the land is taxable, meaning county governments and rural schools are woefully underfunded. Exacerbating the problem is that cash-strapped local governments often have to provide law enforcement and search and rescue services on federal land without adequate reimbursement. 

“We call PILT income ‘Pennies in Lieu of Millions’ because local governments really don’t get much,” Curtis said. “If we could increase those payments, rural people wouldn’t resent federal land ownership nearly as much.”

It’s tough, though, getting anything meaningful through Congress, Curtis said, because most members from the big urban centers on the coasts and in the Midwest can’t even fathom what it means to have 90 percent of a county owned by the federal government.   

“Almost all of their land is taxed,” Curtis said, “so they can’t relate. They just don’t get it. We have to get them out here for them to even begin to understand the problem.”

With current soaring deficits and vast sums needing to be spent on COVID-19 relief, federal budgets are stretched thin and increasing payments in lieu of taxes is unrealistic.

But if policymakers ever want to reduce public lands tensions and resentment, it’s a goal worth pursuing over the long term.