Utah Retook Its Land From The Federal Gov’t, Gearing Up For A Fight

On Dec. 31, 2014 Utah retook 31.2 million acres of its own land previously under the control of the federal government. Utah consists of 54.3 million acres, so Washington was controlling more than 65% the state.

The “Transfer of Public Lands Act”, signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012, is an unprecedented move that directly challenges the authority of the federal government.

Now, since the reclaim has taken place, Utah is gearing up to fight the feds, who have declared the entire state as ‘hostile’ under Operation Jade Helm 15.

Utah’s Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem stated a bit tepidly, “We are not trying to take back the land. You can’t take back something that was never yours,” Stratton said. “It’s an issue of appropriately and in a timely way transferring the control of the public lands to what’s going to be the best for the state and the people here and for the country.”

Something that was never yours? I think the rest of the States granted you that land as yours. That’s sufficient enough…no federal blessing are needed.

Actually, Utah is moving along intelligently, calling up funds for the legal battle they anticipate with the federal government regarding the land they reclaimed.

The Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands released a 26-page request for proposals, or RFP, seeking outside lawyers for two separate contracts — one for legal consulting services and the other for “relation services,” including lobbying.

Lawmakers and the governor have set aside $2 million to launch the legal fight. And legislators are contemplating adding another $1 million to the fund during the 2015 Legislature.

“You have to plant your tree and wait two or three years before you get your first good peach. You have to nurture it along,” said commission co-chairman Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem.

Stratton is pushing his colleagues to add more money to get expert legal advice and galvanize support outside Utah.

In the three years since Utah enacted the Transfer of Public Lands Act, no other Western state has traipsed into the states rights fight. Meanwhile, Utah’s deadline for the federal government to hand over the land has passed.

At the same time, lawmakers have not spelled out how the state would manage lands currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

A Utah County grower, Stratton is fond of orchard analogies when talking about laying the groundwork for the public land transfer, which he sees as a multi-year process.

“We are not trying to take back the land. You can’t take back something that was never yours,” Stratton said. “It’s an issue of appropriately and in a timely way transferring the control of the public lands to what’s going to be the best for the state and the people here and for the country.”

Under the state contracts offered up this week, the money will not be used to actually litigate the issue, but to help determine the most effective legal arguments and identify legal counsel and expert witnesses to take these arguments to court.

The contract for legal services requires the contractor to make recommendations and submit “a legal brief on legal strategies (taking into account cost and other factors) that the State of Utah may use to obtain ownership and control of public lands.”

The non-legal component of the RPF is geared toward developing public relations campaigns to build political support for land transfer and forging coalitions with other Western states.

Both two-year contracts will be awarded June 19.

Conservationists across the West denounce public land transfer as an unconstitutional “seizure” and “land grab” intended to open up vast landscapes to extractive industries and motorized access without regard to natural values.

But proponents say their goal is to allow the states to restore the land and rural economies they allege have been damaged by failed federal policies.

One public lands commission member, Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis, a staunch transfer opponent, has lost patience with the debate and is urging his colleagues to press on with a lawsuit, preferably as a petition for original jurisdiction before the nation’s highest court.

“Let’s get the big enchilada case before the Supreme Court. Let’s stop piddling around with this. Let’s get a decision and move on with our life,” Dabakis said Monday on the Senate floor. “For once and all, come down and say these lands belong to Utah or they could say, ‘Utah, dream on. You’re not going to get it.’ We are going to be able to end this eternal lawsuit.”

Dabakis was arguing in support of his own bill, SB105, which would direct the attorney general to file suit by June 30, 2016.

So far, however, the federal government hasn’t given any indication that it plans to cooperate. Still, state Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the legislation, isn’t deterred.

“That’s what you do any time you’re negotiating with a partner. You set a date,” said Mr. Ivory. “Unfortunately, our federal partner has decided they don’t want to negotiate in good faith. So we’ll move forward with the four-step plan that the governor laid out.”

In other words, there won’t be any escorting of federal officials by state troopers to the eastern border. Instead, he said, state officials will proceed with a program of education, negotiation, legislation and litigation.

“We’re going to move forward and use all the resources at our disposal,” said Mr. Ivory, who also heads the American Lands Council, which advocates the relinquishing of federal lands to the control of the states.

With the 2012 law, Utah placed itself on the cutting edge of the heated debate over public lands in the West. The federal government controls more than 50 percent of the land west of Kansas — in Utah’s case, it’s 64.5 percent, a situation that has increasingly resulted in tensions across the Rocky Mountain West.

Those in favor of the state taking control of federal lands were buoyed by a report Monday that concluded the idea was financially feasible. Entitled “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah,” the 784-page analysis found that Utah was capable of managing that property, now under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.

The study also found that while small amounts of federal ownership could stimulate economic growth in counties, such management becomes a “drag” on most counties after they reach 40 percent to 45 percent ownership, adding that, “twenty of Utah’s 29 counties exceed this threshold.”

Green opposition

On the other side of the debate is the environmental movement, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which argues that transferring federal lands to state control “makes it harder to protect Utah’s wild lands for all Americans.” Washington, environmentalists argue, is a better steward of Utah’s natural riches than Salt Lake City.

Staff attorney David Garbett argues that the report shows Utah would be unable to afford managing the federal lands without selling them or subjecting them to heavy development.

“When will the legislature realize that the public does not want to see the Wasatch Mountains barricaded with ‘No Trespassing’ signs, the Book Cliffs lost to tar sand strip mines or Arches National Park ringed with oil and gas development?” he said in a statement.

The group launched a radio and television campaign this week aimed at drumming up opposition to the plan, describing it as a “land grab.” The ads allege that managing the lands would be so costly that Utah would be forced to sell or lease them to private developers.

“But that means Utahans would lose access to the lands that formed our heritage,” says the television ad, which shows people fishing and horseback riding. “Seizing public lands: A bad idea we can’t afford.”

Mr. Ivory dismissed the attacks as “fear tactics,” pointing out that the law includes only lands designated for multiple use — in other words, economic development — and not national parks or national monuments.

“They’re trying to get people to think that the sky is falling, and it’s just not,” Mr. Ivory said. “In fact, Utah passed the only state wilderness act so that, as the lands are transferred, we designate the unique heritage sites as state wilderness to be protected under the guidelines the state establishes.”

He pointed to the report, which he says shows “clearly Utah can afford to do this without selling off any land. None of that is contemplated.”

“These are tactics by those who just want to keep making money by suing the federal government,” Mr. Ivory said, referring to environmental groups.

“Under increasing federal control, access is being restricted. The health of the land is diminishing horribly. And the productivity is depressed,” Mr. Ivory said. “This is the only way to get better access, better health and better productivity.”

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