Bill, resolution to wrest control of federal lands to state move to final passage in Senate

Published: Tuesday, March 6 2012 7:32 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate took another step Tuesday to push back against the federal government's control of public lands and the resulting financial impacts to the state.

The bottom line, said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is that "the federal government may have the right to handle federal lands, but it does not have the power to breach a contract."

Valentine explained that when Utah became a state in 1896, it essentially entered a contract with the federal government that said Congress would sell federally controlled land with 5 percent of proceeds going to a public education trust fund.

But the landscape changed in 1976 after Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. It allows the federal government to retain the land unless disposing of it serves the national interest.

"We had a contract with the federal government. We always had the hope that contract would be honored by the federal government," Valentine said during debate on HB148 Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate, on a vote of 22-7, moved the bill to a final vote over the protest of Democrats. The bill creates a mechanism to sue if the federal government does not transfer title to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands to the state by the end of 2014.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said by inviting a lawsuit, "we will spend a lot of time, energy and money and it's not the best public policy."

Romero, who is an attorney, said the constitutional note on the bill said passing the legislation would "engage us in a legal battle with the federal government and ultimately, we're likely to lose."

The Senate also tentatively passed a resolution that outlines the history of the issue, and sets the deadline for the federal government to hand over BLM, Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-controlled lands to the state. Military installations, national parks and lands that Congress has designated as wilderness are exempt.

HJR3 passed the Senate on its second reading with little debate Tuesday morning. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, the Senate sponsor of the measure, said the resolution seeks to come up with equitable resolution to a promise the federal government made to the state 116 years ago.

"When the federal government got to the West, they quit letting have states have control of their lands," she said.

The resolution calls for the creation of state Public Lands Commission to oversee the land and related issues should the state prevail in its actions. 

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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