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Western states to feds: Turn over public lands

Published: Friday, April 18 2014 8:25 p.m. MDT

A public lands summit at the Utah State Capitol drew top legislative leaders from eight Western states who are trying map out a plan to gain control of certain federal lands within their borders. They say mismanagement is damaging landscapes.

Daniel R. Patterson, AP

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SALT LAKE CITY — A group of lawmakers and policymakers from eight Western states joined forces Friday in an all-day summit in Salt Lake City to declare "enough is enough" against the federal government when it comes to management of public lands.

"It is time states in the West came of age," said Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Twin Falls. "We are every bit as capable of managing the lands within our boundaries as are the states to our east, those states east of Colorado."

Bedke, in a press conference at the Capitol after the summit, pointed to forest ecosystems degraded by mismanagement that have imperiled watersheds and led to catastrophic wildfires.

"We are burning up each summer in Idaho," he said, while stressing that state-managed lands in Idaho are faring better, despite parity in lightning strikes and drought impacts.

Bedke and representatives from Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Utah, are part of a coalition of Western states where federal land ownership has been an enduring complaint they say locks up access to mineral resources, strips them of revenue and shreds their autonomy when it comes to control of their own house.

"There is a distinct difference in the way federal agencies are managing the federal lands today," said Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a co-organizer of the summit.

"They used they to do a good job, but they are hamstrung now with conflicting policies, politicized science and an extreme financial crisis at the national level. It makes it impossible for these federal agencies to manage the lands responsibly any more."

Utah, where 67 percent of the land is in federal land ownership, has led a legislative charge to demand relinquishment of title to certain lands that exclude national parks and wilderness study areas.

The Transfer of Public Lands Act, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan and signed into law by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012, set the stage for a formal showdown with the government by demanding action under threat of lawsuit.

Other states are exploring similar options in a collaborative effort to not only signal a show of solidarity but craft like-mind solutions to the problem, said Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

"The majority of these states have more federal land within their borders than land of their own," she said. "It is about fairness."

She deflected questions about how much such an effort would ultimately cost the states involved, instead pointing to the cost of inaction, on both sides.

"I would counter with what is it costing the government to maintain control and management of the federal lands. What if we don't act? We believe the states can manage the lands better at lower costs and at greater returns for our taxpayers and our children."

Both she and Ivory added that the movement is not "new," with her saying the "great Western state of Illinois," once had 90 percent of its lands in federal ownership.

But the transfer of public lands movement by Utah has come under harsh criticism by environmental groups that claim it is a reckless, costly pursuit that will only cost millions and ultimately put landscapes at risk. Pristine land, they argue, will be auctioned off to the highest bidder with little regard to environmental impacts.

Lockhart said if the groups care about preserving landscapes, they will be at the table in negotiations because of watersheds that are destroyed in fires and wildlife that is decimated in their wake, jeopardizing resources for the American public in general.

"This is bigger than the West," she said.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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