WASHINGTON — Should business executive Sally Jewell secure the nomination to become the next interior secretary, she'll become the landlord of the West at a time seldom more critical to Utah's destiny.
Jewell faces controversial public lands issues that are at the groundswell of states' rights, with Utah leading the charge to re-assert its dominion over federal lands within its borders and threatening to sue if the feds don't acquiesce.
Among those divisive, complex and costly public lands issues are oil and gas drilling, threats over the creation of new national monuments and Utah's struggle to fend off new species designations under the Endangered Species Act.
1. Federal land control
Last year's passage of HB148, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, has thrust Utah into the national spotlight epitomizing the West's newest incantation of the Sagebrush Rebellion.
With more than two-thirds of the land mass in Utah under control of some federal agency, the state's conservative political leadership maintains economic development is held hostage, and it's the schoolchildren who suffer because of diminished state and local property taxes.
The law demands the land promised to Utah at its statehood and allows Utah the flexibility to manage for "multiple use," with some narrow exceptions such as National Parks and wilderness areas.
Critics such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance have launched a high-profile media campaign to derail the effort, which has been lambasted by top Democratic leaders in Utah who say it is pure fiscal foolishness to wage such a battle.
2. Drilling and 'fracking'
Utah ranks 11th in the nation for crude oil production and ninth in natural gas production, with 11,000 wells actively being pumped for natural resources. The state has consistently chafed, however, at what it says are the protracted, bureaucratic environmental reviews that chase away companies to seek permits on private land in other states.
The Bureau of Land Management has revamped its rule on hydraulic fracturing, although the state has regulated the practice for decades. Industry expects the new, cumbersome rule will add another 90 to 100 days to the permitting process, throwing up yet another roadblock to resource development.
Environmental groups have filed lawsuits contesting the BLM's land management plans adopted during the Bush administration, asserting they embrace a "drill at all costs" policy that ignores devastating costs to pristine Utah landscapes.
3. New monument designations
Utah's conservative Republican politicians are still stinging and wilderness advocates are still celebrating the surprise 1996 move by then-President Bill Clinton that created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument encompassing 1.6 million acres
President Clinton's use of the Antiquities Act to designate the monument riled Utah politicians, who said with a flick of a pen the administration arbitrarily put off limits resource-rich land that could have been tapped for coal extraction and other profitable uses.
In 2010, a leaked Interior Department memo detailing new monument candidates for the Obama administration — including two in Utah — galvanized new concerns and prompted a flurry of discussions among Utah's political leaders and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. As Obama hits his stride during his second term in office, new monuments in Utah remain top concerns, especially given that Obama has protected less land administratively than his four predecessors, even George W. Bush.
4. Disputed roads, 'deer trails' and dirt paths
Perhaps one of the most critical but contentious battles over "access" to public lands revolves around Civil War-era roads that were developed to foster a transportation system in the West.
Utah and 22 of its counties are going to federal court over right-of-way claims to an estimated 12,000 of these roads, routes or trails that the state and counties have to prove have been subject to continuous "historical use" for a decade or more.
The lawsuits against the Interior Department boil down to maintaining, gaining or preserving access to lands — "roads" can't exist in designated wilderness. Environmental groups say the claims lay stake to "roads to nowhere" and are part of an anti-lands agenda.
5. Endangered species and Utah
Utah politicians are strenuously fighting to keep San Juan County's population of the Gunnison sage grouse from being named to the Endangered Species List. More than 90 percent of the birds' habitat occurs on private lands in the rural southeastern county, and the majority of that on acreage for farming and ranching.
Such designations, which have occurred for the Utah prairie dog, render tight land-use restrictions and limit local and state governments' ability to respond to manage populations. Prairie dogs have been blamed for costly public safety issues at rural municipal airports after colonies move in, necessitating congressional intervention to solve the problem.
The state also fears a popular state park could be closed with the proposed listing of a rare beetle found only in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes area.
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