SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's congressional delegation say they intend to bolster state lawmakers' efforts to wrest control of public lands with legislation on the federal level.
Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop said Tuesday they will pattern measures after a package of bills the Utah Legislature passed during its general session that ended last week.
"We in Washington will do everything we can to assist and back up the state of Utah in this particular effort," Bishop said. "If it involves legislation, we will do that. If it involves any other kind of support, we will do that."
Bishop, Hatch, state lawmakers and other state leaders held a news conference to announce a "coordinated and united" effort to take on the federal government. Leaders of the Utah Parent-Teacher Association also attended.
"This is the beginning of what Team Utah looks like," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, a leader of the state's effort.
The Legislature passed bills demanding the federal government relinquish millions of acres of public land in Utah and setting a Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for that to take place. They also set aside several million dollars for a possible court battle. Utah isn't seeking land in national parks, national monuments and designated wilderness areas, something lawmakers clarified in an amendment to the legislation.
Legislative attorneys have told lawmakers any attempt to enforce the measures would have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.
The state contends the federal government broke promises made at statehood to transfer the lands to the state where it could generate tax revenue for public education. Retaining the lands in federal control has robbed Utah of billions of dollars for schools, state lawmakers say.
"Utah land managers should have more authority than the BLM," Hatch said. "We believe it's time we were on equal footing with them when it comes to control of federal land."
Asked if that could happen under a Democratic administration, Hatch said "probably not."
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, said the state wants a political solution before going to court.
Utah consistently ranks near the bottom of per-student funding in the nation, hence PTA support for the state's effort.
"For us it's a funding issue," said Gainell Rogers, Utah PTA president.
Critics of the state's plan to control federal lands say it doesn't do anything to help schoolchildren now.
"We have to start somewhere, Rogers said, noting the PTA has been involved in the public lands issue since 1994. Utah's school trust lands have generated $1 billion for schools over the years. "Had we not started 20 years ago, we would still be at zero."