Close to two dozen state financial officers, including Utah Treasurer Marlo Oaks, rallied in a consolidated effort to get a proposed rule by the New York Stock Exchange in cooperation with the Securities and Exchange Commission withdrawn earlier this year.

But that does not mean strong concern does not remain over the proposal for so-called Natural Asset Companies to come into states and buy up land — sometimes without an owner’s permission — as long they can prove the acquisition has ecological value and is for the benefit of conservation.

Oaks was among 23 signatories to a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, forcefully explaining their opposition to the proposed rule. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, introduced legislation to keep Natural Asset Companies at bay.

On his website, Oaks said the proposal posed a significant risk to rural economies by creating a mechanism for public and private land to be permanently removed from productive use in the name of solving climate change.

“The proposed creation of Natural Asset Companies is one of the greatest threats to rural communities in the history of our country,” Oaks said. “Under the proposal, private interests, including foreign-controlled sovereign wealth funds, could use their capital to purchase or manage farmland, national and state parks, and other mineral-rich areas and stop essential economic activities like farming, grazing and energy extraction. Recreating on Utah’s incredible natural lands could also face significant curtailment.”

Curtis introduced his bill in January to shield Utah from such action.

Public lands and private companies

“Wall Street shouldn’t be allowed to control Utah’s land just to meet (environmental, social, governance) goals,” said Curtis. “Western communities rely on public lands for their livelihoods, recreation, and more. This rule, and any similar proposal to authorize Natural Asset Companies, is a direct threat to that way of life.”

In October last year, the SEC published a rule that would allow Natural Asset Companies to own the rights to ecological performance (i.e., natural assets) and license rights to minerals, water or air from “sovereign nations or private landowners,” according to opponents.

“Natural Asset Companies could enroll the easements without the landowners’ consent,” Oaks’ website said.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, explained to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Friday how his measure, HB496, makes plain the state wants no part of Natural Asset Companies should the proposal resurface.

“There was such a stir in the West that we got them to back off from that (proposal) but this will probably be brought back or something similar. We just have to be vigilant here in the state of Utah and say no, we don’t want Natural Asset Companies,” Albrecht said. “We don’t want anything like this. The administration is throwing a lot of stuff at the wall and hoping that something sticks and we just don’t want anything like that in the the state of Utah.”

The final few paragraphs of his bill prohibits Natural Asset Companies from purchasing or leasing state public lands within Utah, as well as owning or managing a conservation lease or from purchasing or leasing ecosystem services.

Oaks is not convinced the proposal has died.

“I don’t think the proposal has died altogether. The agenda is still alive. After spending 212 months researching and engaging in national conversations with experts to fight this, I have a heightened awareness of the Biden administration’s efforts to use land to address various policy issues,” he said. “The federal approach includes creating new natural capital accounts and conservation leases both of which are based on valuing ecological services and measuring ecological services which simply means applying value to natural processes like pollination and photosynthesis.”

Redge Johnson, director of Utah’s Public Land Policy Coordinating Office, said the Natural Asset Companies proposal is a precursor to another rule expected to be rolled out later this year by the Bureau of Land Management that eyes widespread conservation on a landscape scale.

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Johnson said it represents the most dramatic change to federal land management since 1976, when the Federal Land Management Policy Act, or FLMPA, was adopted.

Albrecht echoed that concern, saying it jeopardizes true multiple use because of the priority it places on conservation.

“And if this rule comes out by the BLM, it could be disastrous for the state and our producers and everybody that recreates on public lands,” he said.

But Caitlin Curry, vice chair of the Utah Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said she did not see a threat to recreation.

“We’ve been supportive of the BLM public lands rule and are optimistic at its ability to improve habitat on BLM lands for wildlife while also coexisting with current uses,” she said.

In particular, she said the group was opposed to language in the bill that says Utah objects to “prioritization” of conservation on public lands compared to other uses.

The measure passed unanimously and now advances to the full House for consideration.