A Logan-based public policy research firm has been approved by the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands to help lawmakers strategize about the controversial effort to gain control of Utah’s federal lands.

Strata Policy was selected to provide “relations services” to the commission earlier this month, according to a legislative memorandum outlining the tentative contract award.

Branding itself as “a premier research hub on environmental, energy and public lands issues,” according to its website, Strata’s mission is to “channel the ideas of liberty and free-markets through robust research and individual development programs (to) influence change.” It has completed at least three studies on public lands since 2010.

Strata has also gained attention for its work in part because its founder, Utah State University professor Randy Simmons, was a Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy at USU before funding ran out. He is also a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning nonprofit Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), based in Bozeman, Montana.

While the commission’s recent selection of Strata was praised by lawmakers, critics are claiming it will add to biased research in order to further justify state officials’ desire to gain control of federal lands.

Strata’s tentative work with lawmakers stems from a state law passed in 2012 demanding the federal government give up control of about 31 million acres, roughly 50 percent of the state, by Dec. 31, 2014. Utah’s officials argue the state would be a better manager and local control would allow Utah to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres. Since the deadline passed without transfer, Utah officials have discussed bringing a lawsuit, but not decided whether to proceed.

A study in conjunction with the 2012 law examined the feasibility of the lands transfer. That investigation, conducted by economists at three Utah institutions, including USU, found that oil and gas leases would allow Utah to afford the $280 million annual cost of managing the land, but only if those prices remained high.

Keven Stratton, R-Orem, co-chair of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, said Strata’s hiring revolves around a bigger issue than the lands transfer.

“I don’t want to underplay the notion that we think the state of Utah would be better managers of public lands than the federal government, but sometimes, that becomes the whole of the argument — and it is an important piece — but not the whole,” he said. “The whole is trying to do the best for our public lands. We want to keep all of the treasures we have intact to make sure the land is productive and safe. We want to continue to invite the public to come.”

Currently, the commission and Strata are hammering out details on the scope of the work, according to Ryan Yonk, CEO and executive director of Strata, so the specifics of Strata’s role aren’t clear, but Yonk gave a hint of what’s to come.

“We want to help figure out what the story is with public lands and the communities that are adjacent to them,” Yonk said. “There’s lots of recreation that happens, but there is also, from our own research, consequences of having a large amount of land owned by the federal government that are not always positive. Understanding that breadth of stories should allow a better discussion of public lands going forward.”

Stratton said Strata’s findings will be an important source for lawmakers in decisions over public lands management.

“A lot is at stake, and we need to make sure there’s accurate information available for those that are concerned,” he explained. “There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about public lands. We would hope that this would help decrease that and allow clarity and understanding that allows good decisions to be made across the board by all stakeholders.”

Strata’s past public lands research

In 2011, the firm published a study analyzing the economic conditions of “non-wilderness” vs. “wilderness” counties.

Strata used the creation of the Grand Staircase National Monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a case study. The Monument, spanning nearly 1.9 million acres in southern Utah, was hailed as a creation that would “increase economic prosperity” in surrounding communities. But Strata’s analysis showed that the Monument’s “specific designation has had little or no effect on the economic situation of the host counties.”

More broadly, Strata found that “wildness does not have a positive, monetary effect” on their home counties, compared to those without wilderness.

A 2012 study exploring the impact of wilderness and other federally protected lands on “quality of life, governance, and economic outcomes” in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah found that wilderness has “a negative impact on local economic conditions” and is “significantly associated with lower per capita income, lower total payroll, and lower total tax receipts in counties.”

Yonk said Strata’s studies show that on economic indicators including household income and tax base, Cache County “does better than most counties that are primarily in public lands areas.”

“When you’re surrounded by that much federal land, there will be impacts, and so understanding those impacts are important as we have any discussion about public lands,” Yonk said.

Strata Bias?

Critics allege that Strata’s study findings are biased, in part because of Simmons’ Koch-supported professorship and his role as a senior fellow at a “free-market” conservation institute in Montana.

Simmons gained widespread media attention in April for publishing an op-ed critical of the economics of wind power that was reprinted in Newsweek. Critics said that Newsweek should have disclosed Simmons’ ties to the oil industry in a note with the article. The magazine eventually ran such a note and linked to a rebuttal article.

Arthur Caplan, a USU applied economics professor who has spoken out against the idea of federal public lands transfer, is one of those critics and expressed concerns about Strata’s role with the Legislature.

“You have a think-tank aligned with the thinking of the Legislature and end up creating a snowball effect,” of biased research to support lawmaker’s assertions that a lands transfer is possible, Caplan said. “Pardon my French, but I don’t think a lawsuit (to transfer lands to Utah) has a snowball chance in Hell. It’s a waste of money. You’re not going to relinquish all of the federal lands (in Utah). I can’t see a higher court validating that.”

Caplan suggested the commission find a university to conduct the research they plan to assign to Strata, much like the Legislature did in asking Weber State, the UofU and USU to conduct the economic feasibility study.

“When you stick with an academic unit at a university, you’re more likely to avoid those potential biases,” the USU professor said.

Asked about the criticism of Strata producing biased research, Yonk responded, “We start our research from our own experience, which is looking at public lands recognizing that there are costs to having public lands tied up around communities, so we start from that perspective.”

“What we want to do with the commission is be able to explore the stories and narratives that surround the interplay between communities and public lands,” he continued. “We recognize there are in fact costs that go along with benefits of having public lands in the community.”

Caplan — who admits he’s not an expert on public lands and has not conducted academic research on the subject — has argued that if lawmakers want to explore the possibility of transferring federal lands to the state, at the least, they should wait for the Bureau of Land Management to finish its study on which lands might be eligible for transfer.

“If you interrupt that process, you’re doing a disservice to the nation,” Caplan said. “My main problem is the Legislature is jumping ahead with this and using a group like Strata to arrive at a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.