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Dust settles on legislative session but Utah land war continues

Published: Sunday, March 17 2013 1:55 p.m. MDT

This file photo shows healthy trees sporting green leaves and needles surround sick fir trees with dry red needles, the terminal phase of bark beetle infestation.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s conservative lawmakers this session continued to engineer their own version of a coup d'etat against the federal government over its land management policies, passing a flurry of resolutions and new laws that assert and reiterate dominion over the state’s destiny.

They urged the federal government to butt out of Utah prairie dog management in Iron County and leave it to the locals, and told them to drop San Juan County populations of the Gunnison sage grouse from consideration of being named to the Endangered Species list.

They declared Utah ranchers free to retain and develop water rights as they see fit and said they should be protected from having grazing permits yanked by a federal agency.

That measure by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, directs the state Department of Natural Resources to conduct a study of the state’s jurisdiction over water rights including when that is called into question with disputes involving the federal government.

If some agency such as the U.S. Forest Service files a claim to a water right in Utah, that information will be forwarded to the Utah Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

The action came as a companion to Ivory’s resolution on a water rights war he says has been systematically carried out by federal agencies to poach Utah of its most precious natural resource — life-giving water.

The resolution alleges the federal government has filed more than 16,000 claims of rights and ownership to livestock watering rights in the state and has threatened to not allow cattle on its land unless the water is relinquished.

Another hands-off measure that successfully passed this session was Rep. Mike Noel’s bill to rein in authority-hungry Bureau of Land Management rangers and U.S. Forest Service protection officers.

A trio of sheriffs testifying before a committee told tales of abusive federal employees overstepping their authority by chasing after speeding motorists on state highways or hassling hunters and fishermen by insisting on peering into ice chests.

Although they’ve tried for years to resolve differences and complained to top officials in the agencies, the sheriffs told lawmakers their lists of grievances were ignored.

Noel’s bill states that Utah does not recognize the authority of certain federal employees to exercise police powers unless state or local officers are not “reasonably” available.

Lawmakers also railed against the federal government for failing to manage its land to the extent that it puts Utah residents’ lives and livelihoods in danger.

In a resolution sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, Utah declared its “jurisdictional” right to take actions on federal lands when it is necessary to protect life and property.

The resolution cites inaction on the part of federal agencies in the wake of two devastating wildfires in the summer of 2012 in which the local communities are still struggling through the environmental and financial aftermath.

Roberts’ companion bill, HB164, gives a county the ability to serve written notice to the federal government describing the adverse impacts of its action or lack of action on residents. If the federal government doesn’t take steps to correct the problem, the county has the right to take mitigating steps to protect residents.

“We know on the ground that if we continue to leave beetle-killed forests just sitting there, we there are going to be more intense fires, with increasing acreage burned, with increase air quality that is damaged and more damage to wildlife and the watersheds,” Ivory said.

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