SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's public lands fight against the federal government is beginning to gather steam on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were briefed Wednesday about efforts to establish a commission to help navigate policymakers through the fray.
"It's kind of like eating an elephant," said Kathleen Clarke, director of the Public Lands Coordinating Office. "Where do you start?"
Clarke said her office is working in consultation with a number of experts on the establishment of the commission, which would provide guidance and answers as the state moves forward its demands to have the government cede authority to Utah over the control of federal lands.
"It has become very clear to us that this is not just a Utah battle," she told members of the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
"It's not just a Republican issue," Clarke added, pointing to the charge led by then-Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, a Democrat who was among the key players in an American West battle to influence more local control over environmental policies in the 1970s and ’80s.
"I think (Matheson) was way ahead of his time," remarked Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, sponsor of last session's HB148, which is setting the stage for this newest fight.
Utah's public policy makers are chafing against the federal government's continued control over an estimated two-thirds of the land in Utah. They assert that ownership locks up millions of dollars in potential revenue because of environmental regulations that hamstring the oil and gas industry, livestock grazing or even timber harvesting.
Federal land ownership in states west of Colorado far eclipses counterparts in the East, for example, because land promised at statehood was not granted, according to the movement.
Ivory's measure to gain those lands is making traction in other Western states because of the pushback over federal ownership. It sets aside money for Utah to sue the federal government if certain lands aren't relinquished, but exempts certain areas such as national parks or congressionally designated wilderness areas.
Clarke, former national director of the Bureau of Land Management, added that concerns over a predicted costly legal battle to come shouldn't act as a deterrent to lawmakers as they move forward.
"Those costs shouldn't be a consideration whether should do this or not," she said. "They balance out."
Critics of Utah's efforts in this arena say it is a battle the state can ill afford to undertake because of the financial nightmare Utah would inherit if the federal government relinquished control of the lands it manages.
Kevin Carter, executive director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, told lawmakers he believes very little of the land would ultimately be sold by the state. The real money would come from more flexible resource development opportunities, he said.
"Congress has tied the hands of federal land managers," Carter said. "If you remove that master, I think you'd see a big difference."
Clarke said she expects to be back before lawmakers in November with the blueprint for establishing the Utah Public Lands Commission.