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Correcting the record: park visitation data

Over the weekend, we were alerted that several numbers were incorrect in research conducted and published by the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC), titled Access Divided and commissioned by Sutherland Institute, that compared recreational access on federal and state public lands. Upon investigation, we found that this was due to a data-entry error at PERC. Just as journalists, academics and other prominent public voices regularly do when human error overcomes good review processes, PERC issued a correction to the report, and Sutherland removed links to the inaccurate data from a blog post highlighting the research and its results.

Some organizations opposed to Sutherland’s views on public land management have tried to use this mistake as a platform for hyperbolic accusations and demands. However, at Sutherland our intent is to seriously pursue thoughtful, well-informed and elevated dialogue on important public policy issues, not play “gotcha” or claim ideological victory.

The correction from PERC noted that the data error made no substantive changes to the discussion of and conclusions from their research. In other words, PERC’s work is as valid and relevant for policymakers and the public as it was before, the data-entry error notwithstanding.

Similarly, the policy conclusions Sutherland drew from PERC’s research remain valid and relevant: According to visitation data for state and national parks in the West, Western states are better able to manage public lands for recreation than Washington, D.C., which explains why total visitation at those state parks is nearly 80 percent higher than at the corresponding national parks, despite those national parks containing more than five times the number of acres as the state parks.

Certainly, there are many policy and legal nuances that fill in the blanks behind state superiority in recreational land management. For example, national parks are being managed for both environmental and recreational purposes, compared to the primarily recreational purposes of state parks. But these nuances explain, rather than contradict, Sutherland’s conclusion from the visitation data: The ability of states to focus on recreational access allows them to provide more popular (i.e. more visited) recreational opportunities than federal land managers can hope to achieve.

Sutherland has a well-documented history of correcting the record when we are wrong, and this is the case here. We hope that rather than using this mistake as cause for hyperbolic accusation and ideological celebration, reasonable people will choose to use this opportunity to delve more deeply into the real issues surrounding the management and care of our valuable public lands.

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Expensive EPA measures will do little to reduce Southwest haze

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only partially accepted Utah’s regional plan for reducing haze in the Southwest’s national parks. Deeming the state’s plan insufficient, the EPA plans to impose its own measures aimed at reducing nitrogen oxide emitted from Utah’s coal plants.

“We are disappointed with the decision,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, “because the Utah plan relied on sound science and common sense, improving visibility at a reasonable cost to Utah ratepayers.” Bird is right. Not only does this new federal plan do little to improve visibility, but it will come at a huge cost.

Utah has been at the forefront of pollution reduction efforts in the Western United States, with emission reduction milestones from coal plants achieved seven years ahead of the EPA’s schedule, and completion of the Regional Haze State Implementation Plan five years earlier than most states.

The most recent five-year average indicates that visibility at Utah’s national parks and wilderness areas is improving on both the 20 percent worst and 20 percent best days, and the state has already achieved better visibility improvement than the preliminary reasonable progress projections for 2018.

Despite these great strides, the EPA is requiring central Utah’s coal plants to install selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology in an attempt to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The cost estimate to install SCR at the Hunter and Huntington coal plants is $580 million, and it would require the demolition and reconstruction of much of the facilities. Utah’s decision not to require SCR on its coal plants is based more on limited benefit than on high cost.

A decade of research conducted by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in collaboration with the EPA’s own technical staff has demonstrated why reductions in nitrogen oxide have not resulted in a corresponding reduction in visibility impairment in the Southwest’s national parks: The region has low levels of ammonia, a chemical compound that reacts with nitrogen oxide to produce ammonium nitrate – a significant cause of visibility impairment.

In other words, while SCR has been successful in other parts of the country, our climate and geography are such that the technology will do little to improve visibility.

The impacts of SCR on the Intermountain West’s haze issues is negligible. However, its effects on the economies of our rural counties are substantial. Carbon County officials say power plants and mineral extraction support 80 percent of the local economy, and for every power plant job that goes away, five other jobs are jeopardized or vanquished. The EPA’s SCR requirement threatens to shut down the lifeblood of Emery and Carbon Counties, which already struggle to keep up economically with the rest of the state.

The fact that air pollution exists in the Southwest’s national parks isn’t in question, and we ought to take measures that preserve the scenic beauty these places provide. But the measures being imposed by the EPA will do almost nothing to “de-haze” the region, and they slap a huge burden on rural Utahns. Let’s do something that would actually clean up the haze instead of needlessly sacrificing a thriving local industry, the economy it supports, and the families of central Utah.

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Finding that trail: How do Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming manage recreation on public lands?

Updated July 5 to reflect corrected data.

Outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, mountain biking, hunting, skiing and fishing are a way of life for most Westerners. But as population increases; new forms of outdoor recreation emerge; and access to federally managed public lands declines, the challenge of meeting growing demands for outdoor recreational access has become critical in many communities throughout the West.

In response to this and other concerns, several Western states have considered resolutions calling on the federal government to transfer much of its land holdings to state ownership. State-managed lands play a pivotal role in providing various forms of recreational access, and this responsibility would expand significantly if federal lands were transferred to state control. To better understand the possible implications of a land transfer, the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) conducted a study titled Access Divided: State and Recreation Management in the West. This report explores how federal and state land agencies manage recreation demands and resolve conflicts between competing land uses.

Click here to see the some key findings of the study.

Click on state names at right to see individual breakdowns for Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

Click here to download the full Access Divided report.

EPA’s proposed carbon rule hits Utah’s most vulnerable hardest

Carl Graham – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed carbon rule is the latest in a series of regulations that will increase the cost of electricity and natural gas at a time when wages are stagnant and a lot of people are struggling to get by.

According to a recently released study, if this new carbon rule is imposed, the average Utah family’s electric bill will go up by $124 and their gas bill will increase by $266 annually, for a total of $32.50 per month. If you don’t think that’s a meaningful amount, then you’re out of touch with a lot of Utah families that are living paycheck to paycheck and are all too often faced with a choice between heating their houses or buying groceries for their children.

These regulations are a backdoor tax plain and simple, and the most regressive and punishing kind possible. It may not hurt you or me to pay an extra few bucks a month to satisfy an environmental feel-good agenda, the results of which will have absolutely no measurable impact on the global climate. But it does hurt the most vulnerable among us. It forces them to pay a larger percentage of their paycheck for everyday needs like heat and electricity, cutting into what disposable income they may have and harming not just their quality of life but also their ability to live. It’s despicable and the height of hypocrisy for ivory tower do-gooders to inflict real pain and suffering on others so that they can enjoy a clear global warming conscience in the comfort of their beautiful homes and SUVs.

This new rule, if it survives the legal and political challenges that are sure to come, also tips the balance of power from Utah’s government and agencies to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

Under the tenets of cooperative federalism, D.C. regulators have traditionally offered states the opportunity to meet federal standards, and even to have inputs into the making of those standards. Not so with the carbon rule. The EPA is presenting a ‘my way or the highway’ approach that offers states a rope with which to hang themselves and a threat to shoot them if they don’t cooperate. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, and it’s insulting that they think they know what’s best for each state and community at any rate.

The Utah Public Service Commission and its antecedents has had sole jurisdiction to oversee the state’s electricity retail electricity market since 1917—more than a half century before the EPA was formed. But apparently they don’t believe Utah’s regulators learned anything in that period and so now must be told how to do their jobs.

In truth, D.C. bureaucrats don’t know (or care) what’s best for Utah. They answer to a different master. And if we don’t push back against their overreaching control, we’ll find our state government is just a branch office of the for-profit environmental industry and their federal employees.

If you’d like to make a comment to the EPA about this proposed regulation, the deadline is Dec. 1st, 2014. You can find some pretty good ideas on how this rule would harm Utahns and impinge on our ability to govern ourselves from this document. And then you can take what’s most important to you and tell the EPA what you think here.

Difference in lands polls explained by education

by: Carl Graham

Two recent polls on federal versus state lands management preferences have seemingly contradictory findings. In fact, they demonstrate one key point: The more people know about the costs and benefits of transferring federal lands to state control, the more they tend to endorse it.

A Center for American Progress poll released late last week claimed that 52 percent of those polled in eight Western states did not want their state to assume control and costs of public lands managed by national resource agencies. But the poll notably omitted any reference to potential benefits of states assuming control and instead listed only potential costs and controversial potential management policies.

Also of note, Utah bucked the apparent trend, with a 52 percent majority expressing a desire for state control. And that finding was echoed in another poll, released earlier this week by UtahPolicy.com, that asked simply whether that state’s residents supported or opposed state government taking control of BLM and Forest Service lands. Sixty percent of respondents supported state control of BLM lands, and 50 percent approved of taking over Forest Service lands in that poll. Fifty-four percent also supported a lawsuit against the federal government to demand control of those lands.

The difference seems to be that Utahns have been grappling with the state control issue for several years and are therefore much more educated on the costs and benefits of the state potentially assuming ownership of most federal lands. They know, for instance, that only multiple-use lands are being considered, leaving national parks, wilderness areas and military reservations in federal hands. They also know that these multiple-use lands can generate income to offset the expenses of managing them. Neither poll addressed these issues, but they have been widely debated in the state since passage of the Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012.

Taken individually, these polls seem to have contradictory results. But the take-away from examining both of them together is simply that the more people know about the costs and benefits of transferring multiple-use federal lands to state control, the more they approve of it.

 

Dark Money Hypocrisy

Dark Money Hypocrisy

The rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C., would have you believe Republicans and right-wingers are pouring cash into a well-oiled political machine, while ragtag liberals and Democrats are stuck mumbling around in disorganized poverty. But the real numbers in Montana tell a different story. Here at least, liberal causes dominate both the money and the machine that drive political outcomes. And frankly, even though I don’t share their goals, I have no problem with their funding sources or organizing methods. I just wish they’d be a little less hypocritical about them.

People should be able to spend their money on political causes. It’s the modern-day equivalent of the corner soapbox, as messages have to reach more people and compete with more voices. The answer to irresponsible speech is more speech, not less of it. Whether it’s billionaire Tom Steyer killing the Keystone Pipeline or the billionaire Koch brothers funding libertarian causes, adding speech to political debates is preferable to taking it away.

Changes in campaign finance laws over the past decade or so have shifted most of this speech from parties and candidates to independent expenditures, or “dark money.” But that term “dark money” has become nothing more than a focus-group tested euphemism for money spent on conservative candidates and causes, and a shallow one at that.

The problem isn’t that there’s too much money in politics. It’s that there’s too much politics in money. As long as the government insists upon picking winners and losers, people will find a way to pay to be on the winners’ list. Eliminate government’s ability to make or break businesses, communities and convictions, and you will eliminate the money people spend protecting those things.

But that’s probably not in the cards, so let’s take a snapshot of who’s spending the “dark money” in Montana. During the 2012 election cycle, independent expenditures supporting liberal candidates and causes outpaced those of conservatives by an order of magnitude: $4.3 million to $336,000. So much for the vast right-wing conspiracy. Sure, there are all kinds of other direct and indirect political expenditures, but if it’s “dark money” critics want to focus on, all they really have to do is look in the mirror.

In truth, national political agendas are increasingly driving political activism and spending in Montana – both on the right and left. With federal laws, regulations, and spending impacting more and more of our everyday lives, virtually every issue in the political world has become a national issue. Obamacare dictates the insurance you can buy. Dodd-Frank regulates your banking options. The Education Department decides what your kids need to know. The list goes on. Every aspect of our lives is increasingly coming under D.C. control, which means national interests have a stake in every state election. And those interests on the left side of the spectrum are pouring resources into Montana affinity groups where they can get a big bang for their buck.

How do we know this? My group just put up a website that connects the dots between national, state and local organizations and individuals advocating so-called progressive agendas and issues in Montana. If you’re on the left, you can go to www.MTLegacyTakers.org to find out who’s on your team and support them. Good for you, and I mean that. But if you lean right on most issues, you can use the site to figure out if that local “sportsman” or other mild-monikered group associates itself with organizations and causes that share your values.

We’re defined in large part by the people with whom we choose to associate, and it’s fascinating how resources – not so much money but organization and people – are funneled into the state through just a few groups and then parceled out to make a progressive national agenda look local. That’s worth illuminating.

The site only looks at left-leaning networks because, well, that’s our job. But if someone wants to create one for right-leaning networks I’ll be happy to give them pointers. Again, the antidote to bad speech is more speech, not less of it. People have a right to speak and spend in ways that advance their values. But let’s be honest about who’s doing what instead of engaging in hypocritical rhetoric.

Update: A friend shared a short video on the hypocrisy of  “watchdog” group Center for Media and Democracy. Again, I have no problem with people spending their money to express their beliefs. I just don’t think they should criticize others for doing the same.

 

Twice as good, half as well, never enough

Carl Graham – Is it more important to stand on principle, or get while the getting is good? Is settling for half a loaf selling out, or a step in the right direction? Does mixing metaphors like concrete weigh prose down, or liberate the literary soul?

OK, no one but the grammar police really cares about that last one. But the first two will decide the limited government movement’s fate. That’s what’s splitting us right now, you see. Libertarian-leaners, classical liberals, and “establishment” conservatives are less divided by issues and objectives than we are about timelines and roadmaps. We all want to see the same movie, but we’re wearing ourselves out haggling over which showing and how to get there. And whatever we decide, the other guys will be there first. Let’s see if I can stick with one metaphor long enough to explain why.

The reason they’ll be there first is because they’re running the theater. Government employees are predominantly big government-type people. That’s not meant as a pejorative. It’s simple common sense. If you think government is the answer and you care about the question, you are more likely to migrate to government employment (it used to be government service, but the days of the dollar-a-year man are gone) than someone who sees government as the problem; or more likely, who sees private work or charity as the answer.

The simple fact is that when conservatives engage in the political and bureaucratic arena, it’s almost always an away game. One reason is noted in this excellent piece by Kevin Williamson: “[C]onservatives are forever in a position of running against handouts, and handouts are popular.”

Another reason, as alluded to above, is that big government-types see government “service” as their highest calling, and thus send their “A” team, while limited government-types send their “A” team to private pursuits. That’s a Thomas Sowell argument, by the way. I don’t claim to be that smart.

But I am smart enough to know that it’s folly to think we’re going to see revolutionary change in how government affects our lives overnight when our team doesn’t want anything to do with it, while the other team sees it as their life’s mission. We engage because we have to. They’re having fun with it. As with the media, and for much the same reasons, we will always be on the defensive when trying to dial back government powers and overreach. We can whine about it and wish it weren’t so, but it is.

The people who think they have all the answers and want to tell us how to live our lives will always migrate to government. The best we can hope for is to limit the harm they can do to the rest of us unenlightened souls who just want to be left alone, with a bureaucracy and political system that limits itself to the basic functions that only governments can do. If you want to know what those are, you could find a worse list than the one in this book.

We’re going to have to fight a million battles in the valley before we get anywhere near the limited government mountain (try to keep up; I’m back to an earlier metaphor).  We’re going to have to accept small victories and put up with losses along the way. It would be good if we could agree on some basics of what we’re fighting for, and recognize whom we’re fighting against.

I’m OK. You’re … well, I’m OK

Carl Graham –

According to census data, six of the 10 highest-income counties in the United States are within commuting distance of Washington, D.C. In fact, 13 of the 30 richest counties in the nation form a continuous circle around the hallowed halls of power there, cutting it off from the real America both physically and metaphorically.

Our center of public service is also tied for second place in the nation in job creation, with all but two counties in the D.C. metro area below the national unemployment rate.

And, not surprisingly, the Beltway is the only area in the nation with a positive economic confidence index. Why not? The rest of us are paying the bills. They’re just picking who gets the spoils, minus a little something to wet their beaks.

Apparently income inequality is bad for thee but not for me if my job is to take care of flyover country.

I’ll take the whole income-inequality crowd’s arguments a lot more seriously when they start insisting that cameramen and ticket takers get a higher percentage of star actors’ and athletes’ checks, and when pay for “public service” is tied to national averages instead of proximity to the royal court.

Meanwhile, the climate is supposedly cooking on all burners as Al Gore makes a fortune consulting for “green energy” companies; the Hollywood and Wall Street elite fill airports at resorts around the world with their private jets; and our current Secretary of State burns about two-thirds of the average American’s yearly carbon footprint on a single trip to Indonesia preaching about … wait for it … global warming. Just for a little perspective, he burned more carbon preaching to Indonesians about the evils of burning carbon than the amount of carbon an average Indonesian burns in over six years.

Apparently burning carbon is bad for thee but not for me if I’m preaching about the evils of global warming.

I’d take them a lot more seriously if those who make the most noise about “climate change” would reduce their own footprints below those of the people whose lives they want to impoverish through higher costs of everything that uses or is made using energy … which is everything.

Of course they are wealthy enough to buy offsets so somebody can plant a tree somewhere that will presumably photosynthesize their carbon sins away. And our Beltway rulers see their good intentions as penance for the pain they inflict on the rest of us, even if they they profit as a result.

I think we need a modern-day Luther to post 95 theses on a few doors.

‘I hate you Washington,’ Americans beg

‘I hate you Washington,’ Americans beg

Carl Graham –

Gallup conducts an annual poll asking people to “Please say whether you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied with our system of government and how well it works.” The percentage of people answering “very” or “somewhat” dissatisfied has risen steadily since 2000 from a low of 23% in 2002 to its current high of 65%. I’m shocked, shocked to find out people are increasingly unhappy with their government.

I would have posed the question differently, though. Instead of asking about their “satisfaction with our system of government and how well it works,” I’d have asked about their “satisfaction with how well our government works.” The difference is that, with the Gallup version, someone could be an avowed Marxist who’s dissatisfied with our system of government even as they’re happy to see it implode. In my version, we’d find out how people think the government is working irrespective of their preferred political or economic philosophies.

And that’s a distinction with a difference. I think most Americans are on board with a capitalist economy and a republican form of government. Most of us would just like to give it a try. Unfortunately, the way Gallup words the question we can’t break out which of those dissatisfied Americans are unhappy with the current trend towards crony corporatism and its inevitable failure to treat them fairly, or if they’re just upset at not getting their share of the plunder.

We can, however, tease out some of the answer as the poll goes on to ask about Americans’ satisfaction with the size and power of the federal government in particular. The ranks of the dissatisfied climbed from a low of 39% in 2002 to a high of 69% in 2012, and currently sits at 66% after a brief spell of relative euphoria with only 63% of Americans disliking federal government power in 2013.  That tells me Americans are increasingly unhappy with having D.C.’s values and priorities imposed on them, notwithstanding how good the feds or our current system might be at it.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that 66% of Americans thinking D.C. has too much power apparently isn’t enough to make us want to do anything about it. Even as our disgust with Washington’s imposing its will on the rest of us has increased, we’ve allowed our dependence on government handouts to increase. Federal grants to states rose by over 26% from 2007 to 2012, and now account for about a third of state spending on average.

So just to tidy all that up, we are giving our federal government record low approval ratings while simultaneously increasing our dependence it, and acting surprised at how it turns out. Huh? We’ve become the proverbial infant with an intake at one end, an exhaust at the other, and no sense of responsibility for what happens at either.

Still, there is some room for hope that we may collectively come to our senses. A similar poll asking about trust in state and local government shows faith in them at 62% and 71% respectively. Unfortunately I’m guessing that as they become more dependent on federal funds and the marionette strings that come with them, we’re going to see state and local numbers start to slide as well.

It is interesting, though, that trust in government has become much more local as D.C. gets further out of touch with the rest of the country. Maybe we’ll hike up our Huggies and bring government back home after all.

Fracking is Good for Utah (and everyone else, too)

By: Carl Graham

So what’s all the fuss about fracking? Its most vocal opponents charge that fracking will burn your water, pollute your air, and cause the very ground to shift beneath you. The oil and gas industry, and many of those who benefit by the thousands of jobs it creates, obviously disagree. So who’s right?

Well, not being a scientist, I have to base my opinions on information I get from trusted sources, as do most of fracking’s detractors. And based on that information, my conclusion is this: Just as the Keystone pipeline opposition isn’t about pipelines, coal terminal alarmism isn’t about coal terminals, and tar sands obstructionism isn’t about tar sands; most of the fuss about fracking has little to do with the actual process and more to do with getting rid of fossil fuels.

Let’s start with a simple, verifiable fact: In its 60-plus-year history, there has been no peer-reviewed academic (i.e., not sponsored by industry or interest groups) study demonstrating harmful impacts of fracking on water supplies. That’s zero, zip, nada. Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson – hardly a fossil fuel advocate – told Congress that there have been “no proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

Sure, there are plenty of “studies” with lots of anecdotes purporting to prove that fracking is either the savior of mankind or, alternatively, its inevitable downfall. Most of these tend to be a tad self-serving. As the old proverb says, a lie will go ’round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.

But what have those who are actually responsible for public safety said about fracking? Dimock, Penn., and Pavillion, Wyo., have been under the fracking microscope for years and are good indicators.

Residents in Dimock reported dirty water that was famously ignitable at times. But both state regulators and the EPA’s report on Dimock’s famously flammable tap water said claims relating those problems to fracking were unfounded, and the water posed “no immediate health concerns.” A recent report cited one EPA scientist who thought further study was needed (if only global warming alarmists would give similar credence to the thousands of skeptical scientists they regularly belittle), but the EPA has not changed its findings or recommendations so far.

It should come as no shock that methane gets into water wells in areas where there are also gas wells. That’s where the gas is. Relating the two is a common but dangerous trick that tries to confuse coincidence and causation. It’s just like my being cranky on days that end in “Y” doesn’t necessarily mean the letter “Y” makes me cranky.

In the Wyoming case, the EPA came out with a draft report claiming that fracking contaminated ground water there. But the report was subsequently disclaimed after state regulators raised significant questions about its methodology. The EPA tested wells where hydrocarbons were already present, and that were far deeper than drinking water wells. Potential contamination could have come from “legacy pits,” or even the testing process itself. And it ignored the fact that organic chemicals were present in local water supplies long before fracking was employed.

In truth, fracking solutions are typically more than 99 percent water and sand. If you’re worried about the remaining 1 percent, you can look up individual well ingredients yourself at www.fracfocus.org. As for groundwater or aquifer contamination, what little has been related to drilling has thus far been explained by faulty well casings or sloppy procedures, unacceptable but highly fixable shortcomings that have nothing to do with the fracking process itself.

So why all the fuss if study after study fails to find harm? It’s a fuss because for the zealots, this argument is about fossil fuels and not fracking. Just like the Keystone pipeline, coal terminals, tar sands, and so many other battles, this is about shutting down the fossil fuel industry; and facts are the first casualty in what is essentially a highly coordinated, well-financed public relations campaign.

It’s also counterproductive. Cleaner, cheaper natural gas is rapidly replacing coal in the nation’s energy grid, already accounting for about 25 percent of power production. It’s largely responsible for a decrease (yes, a decrease) in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over the past 10 years. That would not be possible without fracking. If you care about global warming and affordable electricity for Utah’s working people, you should be a fracking fan.

And finally, fracking’s good for Utah. It brings in jobs, prosperity, and tax revenues. The economic benefits are measurable and immediate. And the smiling faces of mothers and fathers in eastern Utah watching their kids put on their boots and go to high-paying jobs close to home are a welcome change.