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Robert Bennett: Utah unlikely to 'take back' federal lands

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archive

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An effort to “take back” the federal lands within Utah’s boundaries was a hot political topic several years ago; the state Legislature passed a bill authorizing legal action to pursue it. I thought the whole idea had died out since then, but apparently I was wrong. A week ago I saw a news story reporting that some Utah officials are still pushing it.

Perhaps the reason I did not stay tuned in to this effort is because I have never understood the legal rationale behind it. “Taking back” something implies that it was yours in the first place. The original owners of these lands were the Utes and Navajos, followed by the Mexicans, followed by the U.S. government, which took possession of them after the Mexican American War and placed them in federally designated territories. One of these, named “Utah,” stretched from what is now Colorado to what is now California. The first state made in the Utah Territory was Nevada, in 1864, in order to give Abraham Lincoln three more electoral votes. The state of Utah wasn’t allocated its share of territorial acreage until 1896.

Thus the chain of title is pretty clear. Again: first the Indians, then the Mexicans, then the federal government, but never at any time any Western states until it was created by Congress. When it admitted Nevada and Utah into the Union, Congress gave each one only as much land as it thought good and proper, as was its right. I don’t see merit in the argument that the federal government now has a legal obligation to give them “back” something they never owned.

However, I do understand the emotion that is driving it. It stems from frustration with dealing with federal agencies whose officials sometimes appear to be indifferent to state needs. Also, there are those who believe that the Congress’s refusal to give up control of these lands is part of an overall effort to increase federal power over states in a way that offends the Constitution. Maybe so, but I had an interesting experience that puts a different light on that view.

Just after the Utah Legislature passed its law calling for a lawsuit, I attended a summit on Western land issues held at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was the keynote speaker, and the question of whether or not federal lands should be “given back” to states was high on the agenda. In that setting, reading from historical records, an expert in Western history told us a truly ironic story.

He documented the fact that the federal government once tried to turn these lands over to the states but the states refused to take them. It was Herbert Hoover that proposed doing it, suggesting that the states were in a better position to manage the lands than the Department of the Interior was. Opposition in the West was both quick and strong. The leading Western voice against the proposal was the governor of Utah, who said that the federal lands were in terrible condition and the cost of rehabilitating them would be ruinous. The idea was rejected as nothing more than a federal scheme to get states to pay a bill the feds should pay themselves.

So, but for its then governor, Utah might have once been able to take title to the federal lands within its borders. I don’t know whether that would have been a good thing or not at the time, but I doubt it will happen now. We had the chance and turned it down.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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