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Tussle over federal lands proving complex for Utah

Published: Thursday, Nov. 15 2012 3:50 p.m. MST

More than 100 outdoor recreation retailers petitioned President Barack Obama on Tuesday to designate 1.4 million acres around Canyonlands National Park as a national monument.

Photo courtesy Ravell Call

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SALT LAKE CITY — Attempting to take control of federal lands in Utah will be a complicated endeavor that could stem the flow of federal revenue to the state, legislators were told this week.

More groundwork must be laid, more information must be gathered and more economic analysis must be done before the Utah Legislature could move ahead with its plan to claim millions of acres of land from the federal government, said Tony Rampton, an assistant attorney general assigned to public lands.

"It has many layers. It has many built-in interests, sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting. All this needs to be sorted out," Rampton told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.

The Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year passed HB148, a controversial bill demanding that more than 22 million acres of federal land in Utah be transferred to the state by Dec. 31, 2014. It does not include designated wilderness areas or national parks and monuments, except for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which President Clinton designated by fiat in 1996. The federal government owns 64 percent of the land in Utah.

Meantime, more than 100 outdoor recreation retailers petitioned President Barack Obama on Tuesday to designate 1.4 million acres around Canyonlands National Park as a national monument.

Outdoor industry leaders say they know they're up against political opposition in Utah and want to take the idea to a national level.

"We believe this sends a powerful message to all of Utah's congressional delegation," said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive of Black Diamond Equipment Inc., a Salt Lake City-based company that has been acquiring other hardware makers around the globe. "This would become one of the greatest national monuments in the West."

The four Republicans in Utah's congressional delegation came out strongly against the proposal in a letter to the president Thursday.

"We haven't yet recovered from President Clinton's locking up the largest proven coal reserves in the lower 48 when he established the Escalante-Grand Staircase Monument in Utah during his final days in office," the letter says.

"We oppose the use of executive fiat to establish new land designations. It's not that we oppose national monuments, but they must be done in an open, public process that gives the community and stakeholders an opportunity to have input in the decision."

Kathleen Clark, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, told lawmakers in the meeting that she was "saddened" by the proposal.

Federal agencies, she said, can't properly manage the land they control and face budget cuts that will make it more difficult in the future. Forests are burning and infested with bugs, while rangelands are deteriorating and rampant with wild horses and burros, she said.

"The current system doesn't work," said Clarke, the Bureau of Land Management director in the George W. Bush administration. "We do not have a federal government that is responsive to these local interests and concerns about these things."

Clarke and Rampton presented lawmakers a report Wednesday outlining the history of federal lands management in Utah and offering recommendations for preparing to assume state control. They include:

• Creating a nine-member commission representing various interest groups appointed by the governor to study the acquisition of federal lands.

• Indemnifying counties against the loss of any revenue.

• Directing money derived from the land to public education and other state needs.

• Designating additional wilderness or land subject to preservation.

• Adopting state wilderness and public lands management acts.

"The tasks that need to be completed are really very complicated," Rampton said. "There's a great deal of work to be done."

Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the state is wasting legislative time and money on a "fool's errand."

"This is not a balanced approach to public lands issues. It's an idea so radical that voters in Arizona just last week shot down a similar proposal by a 2-to-1 margin," Groene said.

Legislators and Gov. Gary Herbert should have investigated six months ago how much money Utah would lose in the transfer before demanding the federal government hand over millions of acres, he said.

"In (Wednesday's) report, the state of Utah was forced to admit that their proposal to take control of federal public lands is not a moneymaker for the state and will not help fund Utah schools," Groene said.

Federal agencies spend about $200 million a year managing lands in the state. Mining and grazing generated $445 million in economic activity, while mineral royalties brought in another $141 million, according to the report. Also, counties received $34.7 million through a payment-in-lieu of taxes program.

Clarke said public lands could yield more revenue under state control by creating greater access to natural resources. At the same time, she said, the state would better protect and maintain recreational opportunities.

"This is our home. It has so much meaning to us. I can't imagine anyone in state government taking actions to destroy what we love," she said.

Contributing: Associated Press

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

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