Utah poised to lead another Sagebrush Rebellion over federal land

Published: Sunday, March 4 2012 9:46 p.m. MST

Cottonwood Canyon in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument September 14, 2003.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are fervidly setting the stage for another Sagebrush Rebellion.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives last week passed a "list of grievances" with the federal government and demanded redress. The state Senate is expected to followed suit before the Utah Legislature adjourns Thursday.

Lawmakers say Washington has broken promises to Utah that date back to statehood regarding public lands. The agreement when Utah became a state in 1896 was that Congress would sell the lands with 5 percent of the proceeds going to public education, they say.

But that hasn’t happened, and the GOP lawmakers with the blessing Gov. Gary Herbert intends to do something about it.

The House approved two resolutions and two bills that outline grievances and set deadlines for the federal government to transfer to the state millions of acres currently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It excludes military installations, national parks and congressionally designated wilderness, but includes areas such as the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Should Washington not respond, lawmakers have set aside $3 million for its Constitutional Defense Council to seek other remedies including going to court.

"Are we not a state?" said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, one of the leaders of the charge. "If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say pretty please or mother may I to exercise our rights as a state."

Lawmakers point to the large disparity between federally owned land in the East and the West as evidence of a problem. The government owns substantially more in the West, including 64 percent of the land in Utah, than it does in the rest of the nation.

Federal land policy moved toward conservation and resource management shortly after Utah became a state. Rather than transferring land to states, the federal government began keeping it, said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.

The movement culminated in 1976 when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which retains land in federal ownership unless disposing of it serves the national interest.

In repsonse, angry Western states, including Utah, teamed up to force the federal government to divest itself of its public lands in what came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. The fight has continued on one leve or another ever since.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said it's "extremely unlikely" Utah latest effort will make any headway. He sees it as saber-rattling by Republican legislators and a GOP governor who have nothing to lose in an election year.

"It's mostly about saying, 'Give us back our land. We're mad as hell about it,'" Burbank said. He doubts it will be taken too seriously.

Barrus says it is more than an outburst or a tantrum, as evidenced by the bills that would put the Legislature's wishes into state law.

"I don't want to cast this as a confrontation. I want to cast it as sovereigns talking to one another," Barrus said.

Burbank doubts Washington will be in a talking mood.

"If the federal government were to make this deal with Utah, they would have to make it with every other state," he said.

And suing?

One legislator, Rep. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who voted for the bills sees it this way: "I suspect it will take the Supreme Court less time to throw this out than it takes us to debate it."

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