SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers decided to put money behind their words and ponied up $4.5 million for a lawsuit in the fight to get ownership of 30 million acres of federal lands.
The action carried out in the legislative session that ended Thursday is a significant shot across the bow in what has mostly been an ideological war over who controls what land within the state's borders.
Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi ran HB 287 establishing a special public lands litigation account for a $14 million fight against the U.S. Department of Interior to get control of lands that proponents say were promised at statehood.
The anti-federal sentiment played strong during the 2016 legislative session, with frustrated conservative lawmakers passing multiple bills that declared a brand of Utah autonomy when it comes to land management and local control.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, sponsored a resolution demanding repayment to Utah for keeping national parks open when the federal government shut down in 2013.
In testimony before a committee hearing, Ivory described the various ways the federal government has spent money — such as $1.6 million to study the effects of alcohol on prostitutes in China — but not reimbursed the state for nearly $1 million in costs to operate Utah's national parks during the shutdown due to budget malaise.
His resolution was endorsed by the Utah Legislature and will be forwarded to Congress.
Utah lawmakers also passed a measure by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, that demands more accountability from federal law enforcement, allowing local sheriffs to determine if federal agents have exceeded their authority.
Momentum in Utah's public lands fight has continued to grow since 2012, when the Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act demanding the federal government cede title to 30 million acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management controlled acreage.
Proponents say so much federal land ownership in Western states puts them at an economic disadvantage compared to East Coast counterparts. In Utah, close to 70 percent of the state is in federal ownership, setting the stage for a host of tensions over land use such as grazing, oil and gas development and even forest management for wildfires.
The tension over federal regulations affecting Utah land stoked the creation of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, which is comprised of lawmakers who will oversee the litigation account.
Critics say the efforts are foolhardy and a fiscal nightmare.
“The Legislature’s decision to set aside millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for its meritless ‘Land Grab’ lawsuit is simply mind-boggling,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “There’s a reason that Utah is the only state in nation to press ahead with this legal strategy: it will not succeed."
A legal analysis — authorized and paid for the Legislature — said there is merit in the fight and Utah could prevail.
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