Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Republicans spent their first caucus meeting of the 2014 Legislature rallying around the latest effort to take over the state's federally controlled public lands.
"People say we can't do it. Baloney. We can do it," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said of managing the two-thirds of the state now run by Washington, D.C. "We can do it 10 times better than a bunch of federal bureaucrats."
After hearing from Noel and other members, the caucus voted unanimously to proceed with putting together a package of bills intended to make the case for the transfer of public lands.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the vote wasn't an endorsement of the specific legislation, but an attempt to "see if we can move the ball on the issue of public lands."
Even if the bills end up being passed this session, any resolution of the ongoing battle will take time, House leaders said.
"We know this is in many ways long term. It’s been long term up until now," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, told reporters. "It’s not going to be solved during the session. It’s probably not going to be solved in the next 12 months."
The speaker said what may be different now is that other states and organizations are also pushing for action. Two years ago, Utah passed a high-profile resolution that gave the federal government until the end of 2014 to return the lands.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, told the caucus that's probably going to mean a legal battle.
"No matter what happens, it's very likely we’re going to be in court," Stratton said, possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lockhart said later that it's worth the cost of going to court, calling the money the state could make from the lands "mind-boggling."
"The return on that investment in a win scenario is almost unbelievable in terms of the trillions of dollars over the next few decades that would be available," the speaker said.
While details of the legislation weren't discussed at the caucus, Stratton said they will include a plan for how the state would spend the revenues generated from the development or sale of the lands.
Stratton said the intent is for the state to be "wise stewards" of the lands.
"We’re not talking about raping and pillaging," he said, describing the bills as a way for the state to go on the offensive.
"We have to prove we're competent," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who is drafting legislation on using the money from the lands. "I believe that's how we're going to buy the confidence."
Dee said it's important not to repeat the mistakes of past efforts to take on the federal government, such as the decades-old Sagebrush Rebellion in the West to free up federal land for development.
Noel, whose comments at the caucus were met with applause and some desk-pounding, declared that the only mistake Sagebrush Rebellion supporters made was backing down.
"Don't get me started," he said.
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