SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative committee Tuesday endorsed four public lands bills that demand the federal government relinquish title to lands it owns in Utah.
The bills let the federal government retain control of the state's five national parks, set up a public lands commission and provide for funding for the state to force the action in federal court.
Despite questions over their constitutionality, the bills now advance for additional consideration.
Utah's Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow said his office stands ready to defend the bills.
"There's never an opportunity to go into battle, never an opportunity to assert a right where there is not a little risk," he said, adding it is time to "tear down the metaphorical walls the federal government has built around our state's resources."
The two bills and two resolutions give the federal government a deadline to relinquish title and warn of pending legal action. They have the support of the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah Farm Bureau and the Utah Association of Counties.
The lone dissenter on the House Natural Resources committee Tuesday was Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, and Utah's Democrats blasted the proposals afterward in a press conference.
In committee, House Chair Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, sponsor of one of the resolutions, HJR3, said the time is long past for Utah to hold the federal government accountable for its broken promises to cede land to the state in Utah's Enabling Act.
"Utah did not and could not have contemplated the United States failing to dispose of these lands within a reasonable time," he said. "It's been 116 years since the state was created. ... The only remedy we see as a state is for the state of Utah to take back management responsibility of the state's public lands."
The bills rest on the premise that upon transfer of the title of the lands to Utah, 5 percent of the proceeds would be deposited into the state schools' permanent trust fund. The land could then be taxed.
Sponsors argue that Utah operates at a severe economic disadvantage because the federal government has unlawfully retained title to more than 60 percent of the land mass in Utah — a retention never envisioned by the framers of the U.S. Constitution and subsequently barred in U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Under one measure, the federal government has until Feb. 15, 2013 — after the next U.S. presidential election and possible administrative change — to communicate its intentions to Utah's governor, House speaker and Senate president to either sell its lands in Utah or cede title.
In the interim, another measure authorizes the state's Constitutional Defense Council to prepare legislation to create a public lands commission with oversight authority of those lands for multiple uses, including preservation of open space, access to public lands and for the "sustainable yield" of natural resources.
The idea, according to the sponsors, is to give the federal government time to shift policies should a new president be elected to office. The deadline coincides when the Utah Legislature will be in session so that body has time, and teeth, to react.
Utah's Republican conservatives have become increasingly intolerant and willing to litigate over public land use policies from the Obama administration they assert are overreaching and oppressive.
Multiple legal challenges to the federal government have been mounted on several fronts — from access to so-called RS2477 roads to disputes over denied oil and gas leasing permits.
The set of land bills and resolutions underscore that tension and contain the sting that still simmers over President Bill Clinton's surprise designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
Environmentalists say the resolutions are mere chest-thumping and the other bills, if ultimately passed, are legally indefensible.
In a press conference later in the day, Assistant House Minority Whip Brian King, D-Salt Lake, was joined by other Democrats in voicing their opposition to the public lands measures.
"We are wasting our time up here," King said, adding that pursuit of such legislation is merely "chasing mirages."
King said his Republican counterparts should be hard-pressed to pursue such a destructive and financially irresponsible path, especially given the measures' unconstitutional nature.
"I have a hard time ignoring that."
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, said sponsors are wrongly blaming the federal government for lack of education dollars in Utah when that responsibility rests with the state's own conservatives who craft the budget each year.