SALT LAKE CITY — Critics say Utah's efforts to gain ownership of 30 million acres of federal land within its borders are an ill-conceived folly, but proponents want to be prepared if or when their efforts prove successful.
To that end, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, is sponsoring the Utah Public Lands Management Act, HB276, which would kick in when at least 100,000 acres of federal lands are transferred to the state.
The legislation, which passed the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Friday on a 9-1 vote, sets up the state Division of Land Management, a director to lead the agency and an 11-member advisory board.
Noel said critics who keep calling the state's efforts a "land grab" should note that his bill clearly emphasizes that it is the policy of the state that the lands be retained in state ownership.
"You protect those things that people like," Noel said, noting that he and his children love the outdoors. "I would be going against the very wishes of my children to sell off all these public lands."
The bill provides that the state lands would be managed for multiple uses, including mining, energy development, grazing, outdoor recreation, fishing and hunting, as well as wilderness conservation.
"I honestly don't think people understand my motivations. I consider public lands a sacred place to visit," Noel said.
Utah's efforts to wrest ownership of 30 million acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service-owned lands began in earnest in 2012 with the passage of the Transfer of Public Lands Act.
The act threatened litigation if the lands that supporters say were promised at statehood are not returned to Utah. A lawsuit on the matter has not been filed.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is reviewing a recommendation — that comes with a $14 million price tag — to take the legal challenge directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Multiple other states throughout the West with huge swaths of federal lands within their borders are exploring their options for similar fights, echoing Utah's argument that states west of the Mississippi are at an economic and autonomous disadvantage because of the proportion of federal land ownership.
Environmental groups have panned the efforts, arguing that it is a waste of tax dollars for a fight that was lost before it ever started.
Noel and others don't think so.
"There is a discussion going on out there, with some people who think it is not a real discussion, that it is not going to happen," he said, "but many of us on (the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee), if not all of us, think there is a good possibility that it could happen."
The legislation does not preclude a sale or transfer of land, but Noel said that would only happen if there is a public interest and after public input. He added he doesn't think it's a good idea to sell off the lands — especially since there are people with the financial ability to buy huge chunks of land and block public access.
"We make the hurdles very, very high," Noel said. "They are high in here. I think it is 150 acres or more that it has to go to the Legislature or public referendum. It is up to the people of the state of Utah as to how they protect these public lands and the people they send up here."
He said the federal government has a long history of trading, selling or otherwise disposing of its lands for a wide range of reasons, establishing state parks, cemeteries and even rifle ranges in Utah.
Noel said his bill would give the opportunity for the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, for example, to consolidate its land holdings for better management to the benefit of public schools. It would also give conservationists and environmental groups the opportunity to gain protections for certain prized landscape, he added.
"I think there are areas that should be protected for that solitude," Noel said.
The bill makes clear that certain uses already managed by the state will not be trumped by Utah's management of any new lands, such as recognizing hunting and fishing access managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
No one spoke against the bill, which drew praise from several of Noel's colleagues on the committee.
"I think this is a wise of the representatives and us as a state to have a plan," said Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, adding there's been criticism that the state would be a bumbling manager of any lands that came its way.
"This shows we are on top of it and we know what to do," Perry said.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, had questions on the bill's provisions and voted against it.