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Suit renews Utah's fight to claim lands at Bear River refuge

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 7:06 p.m. MDT

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge has been the subject of a tug-of-war between the federal government and the state of Utah since 1929.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In another version of the state's ongoing fight with the federal government over ownership of disputed lands, Utah is claiming that the feds are "squatters" on thousands of acres of bird refuge property and is going to court to get compensation.

It's a dispute nearly 100 years in the making: Utah wants the federal government to pony up cash as compensation for using land that makes up the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and accept Utah's right to the title of lands at the Great Salt Lake.

"The refuge is located on sovereign lands that belong to the state of Utah and the United States has never compensated Utah for the use of those lands," said Dick Buehler, director of the state Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.

"We want the bird refuge to be there, but we think the citizens of the state of Utah should be compensated for the land the U.S. government is using for that refuge."

Utah filed a suit in U.S. District Court Saturday asserting its intention to keep the legal battle alive while negotiations are once again revisited to settle the fight that stretches back to 1929.

At one point, the U.S government was poised to pay $15 million to Utah as compensation for the land within the bird refuge, but the deal fell through after extensive negotiations in 2001.

Utah attorneys argue that the state became the owner of all sovereign land — including the entire bed of the Great Salt Lake — by virtue of its admission into the union via the 1894 Enabling Act. Since then, the federal government has insisted the Great Salt Lake was not a navigable body of water — which would mean the state lacked any ownership of the lake bed.

In 1928, Congress approved the creation of the refuge and a year later Utah responded with legislation of its own, allowing the refuge but with the caveat that competing claims of ownership still needed to be settled.

By 1976 the controversy erupted into litigation and the matter was before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Utah did own the lake bed of the Great Salt Lake. The ruling, however, left unresolved the issue of ownership of refuge lands.

"It left the unanswered question about that bird refuge area," said Michael Johnson, an assistant attorney general representing Utah.

Thirty years later, the federal government said it no longer saw the need to settle the dispute and the following year, in response, Utah lawmakers ditched the 1929 state law giving the feds the right to operate the refuge.

A land management agreement between the federal government and Utah unraveled last year, giving rise to the need to once again try to resolve the dispute through legal means.

"Opening this court case does not mean we have stopped negotiating with the federal government," Johnson said. "In fact, we are actively doing that."

Johnson said the lawsuit isn't an attempt to undo the refuge, but simply get financial compensation, whether through payment or some kind of land trade.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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