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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."

The Legislature's own attorney have advised lawmakers that any attempt to force the federal government to transfer its public land to Utah has a high probability of being declared unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that only Congress has the power to dispose of federal land.

Barrus and Ivory counter by citing recent high court rulings characterizing the acts creating Western states as "solemn agreements" and that the states should get the "benefit of the bargain."

"We still believe they have not agreed to live up to their side of the contract," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "If one side doesn’t keep the agreement, I believe that negates the agreement."

The House votes were mostly along party lines, though some Republicans broke ranks on a resolution demanding the federal government transfer the land, including Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield.

McIff said "count me out" if those public lands go on the auction block. State ownership, he said, is no guarantee of protection. And though the tendency is to think Utahns would buy the land, he said he fears interests in China or the Middle East could step, which would be "catastrophic" for the state.

Barrus said the state would create the Utah Public Lands Commission to manage the land as it sees fit, which would include recreation, hunting, fishing, tourism, agriculutre, oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and logging. But he said the intent is not to "rape and pillage" the land through mining or exploration.

Democrats call the effort a "gimmick" that wastes time, resources and energy on the pie-in-the-sky notion that Utah will derive billions of dollars for public education.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said the state shouldn't spend money on "suspect" legal theories that will send it "down a rat hole that is not going to pan out in the end."

Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, supports legislators' efforts and encouraged them to keep the bills and resolutions coming.  He likes to display a U.S. map showing the stark contrast between federal land in the East and the West. The right half shows scattered spots of red designating federal ownership. The left half is nearly all red.

Bishop said people's initial reaction is "wow" and then, "So what?"

Said Barrus, "We're going to answer the so what."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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