Students came for the pizza and stayed for the public lands debate.
In the first Pizza and Politics event since the election, members of Dixie State University Student Association and biology students came together Nov. 17 in the Gardner Student Center lounge to debate what role the federal government should have in protecting Utah’s public lands.
Federal land ownership has become a hot-button issue in Utah, where the federal government owns 65 percent of all the land, said James Kener, senior English major from Murray and student director of the DSU Institute of Politics.
“This is one of the biggest issues in southern Utah even though it’s an issue that often falls to the wayside in national politics,” Kener said. “We really wanted to bring this to the attention of the students so someone out there could maybe say, ‘look, I can make a difference; we can build a reasonable compromise to fix this issue.’”
Jayson Foster, a junior biology major from Glenwood, argued for the federal land to be moved into the control of the state. He said his experience growing up in a small, rural town helped him argue for state and rural land rights.
“It would be nice to make counties, like Garfield county, more economically productive because right now, so much of Utah’s coal is in these protected lands,” Foster said. “If we privatized these lands, then we could access this coal.”
Foster also said the overreach of land ownership by the Bureau of Land Management has devastated natural habitats by allowing wild horse populations to grow too much and push land away from cattle herders.
Kener took the other side of the political spectrum and argued for the federal government to maintain control of Utah’s private lands.
“The BLM doesn’t get it right all the time, but the cost of getting land back and running it from the state would be a disaster,” Kener said. “If we let the state buy the land back, they’re going to sell it back to the highest bidder and they’re going to put some giant oil rigs on there to produce the money they need to own the land.”
Public lands are protected by the federal government to keep it pristine and beautiful, Kener said. He also said the state of Utah wouldn’t have enough money to take care of all the public lands if it were to own most of the land.
Matt Fehrenbacker, a senior integrated studies major from Spokane, Washington, said the public lands debate was important because it helped educate students on one of the biggest political issues in the region.
“Students will hopefully learn both sides of the issue,” Fehrenbacker said. “We could either take from the land right now, or we could preserve it so it can last for all the generations to come…This issue will not only affect [students] but it’ll affect their children and their grandchildren to come.”
Kener, who was called a “big-government-loving socialist” by one of the audience members who asked a question, said the debaters purposely argued extreme sides of the issue so students could learn about why people feel strongly about this issue.
“Even though we took on these roles of big-time liberal and big-time conservative, at the end of the day, most of us can agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle with a compromise,” Kener said.