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Bishop, Herbert back Utah's attempt to wrest public lands from feds

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 10:51 p.m. MST

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, right, accompanied by Rep. Greg Walden. R-Ore., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Harry Hamburg, AP

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SALT LAKE CITY — Congressman Rob Bishop often shows colleagues and policy makers from the East a map of how little taxable private property there is in Utah compared to other states.

The typical response, he said, is, "So what?"

The idea that it's not fair is true but not a winning argument, he said. Utah can take the lead in educating people about the uses and purposes of public land, the five-term Republican told lawmakers Thursday, including selling some to boost the state's public education coffers.

"It's time for a paradigm shift," he said.

Bishop spoke and answered questions at the Utah Legislature on several topics, most notably public lands and national defense.

The congressman's work on public lands elicited a "confession" from one Democratic legislative leader. House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said he's impressed with the way Bishop delivers the message.

"It's not just what you're saying but the way you're saying it," he said. It's about education and the effect on Utahns' pocketbooks. "That resonates with me."

"Sometimes in this body it feels much more like we're picking a big fight," Litvack said, adding it doesn't have the same "tone and energy" Bishop brings.

Bishop, a former Utah House speaker, lauded legislators' effort to pass bills and resolutions asserting Utah's right to manage public lands in the state, and urged them to continue doing it. The federal government controls about two-thirds of Utah lands.

"I really don't care what it is, pass it," Bishop said of the various bills. "All I need is one arrow to get over the wall and hit its mark and we are OK. So as many as you shoot, fine."

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, has a bill calling for a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for the federal government to transfer all public lands to the state. Proceeds of any sales would go to the state school fund. National parks and designated wilderness areas would be exempted.

Gov. Gary Herbert supports the measure even if it results in yet another costly court battle with the federal government. Utah is already locked in litigation with federal officials over the state's immigration enforcement law, wilderness proposals from the Interior Department and access to roads that cross federal lands.

Legislative attorneys say in a review note included with the bill that the law has a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.

Ideally, Herbert said the state and federal officials should work together to improve access and increase development opportunities on public lands, especially for energy projects. Alternatively, the state's congressional delegation would be able to work through Congress to give the state more control.

If those approaches fail, Herbert said a lawsuit to answer the constitutional question must remain an option.

"Sometimes there are differences we can't resolve," Herbert said.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart agrees it's worth going to court over and said a majority of House Republicans will get behind the bill.

"We're talking about potentially billions of dollars for public schools," the Provo Republican said.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the bills answer the "so what" question Bishops' congressional colleagues are asking.

"This gives them the reasons," he said. "Let's see if we can get more of them to understand what we're doing."

Bishop also addressed national defense in his brief remarks to state lawmakers.

Utah's military installations "could be in grave danger" in the face of proposed cuts to the nation's defense budget, Bishop told the Utah Senate.

"We don't know where we're going to end up. It's something of grave concern to me and should be of grave concern to you as well," he said.

Bishop said he believes a Base Closure and Realignment Commission is "dead on arrival" in the U.S. House. He said state leaders need to work on behalf of the state's military installations through the Utah Defense Alliance.

While a strong case can be made regarding Hill Air Force Base's and the respective Army installations' contributions to nation's defense systems, "I am very afraid what will take place," as the Obama administration plans to cut military spending after large-scale military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bishop said.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, marjorie@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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