SALT LAKE CITY — A new legal analysis asserts a successful Utah effort to claim federal land would fuel similar efforts among Western states and potentially end the public land system as it exists today, but it isn't likely to happen.
"The federal government has absolute control over federal public lands, including the constitutional authority to retain lands in federal ownership," the study by the University of Utah's College of Law says. "Statutes authorizing Western states to join the Union required those same states to disclaim the right to additional lands, and that disclaimer cannot be spun into a federal duty to dispose."
The study adds that statehood enabling acts' guarantees of equal political rights does not mean there is a promise of equal land ownership
The White Paper on the Transfer of Public Lands Movement was performed by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment and carried out by professor Robert Keiter and John C. Ruple, a research associate.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the author of the 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act, was unmoved by the research's claims.
"They show no basis as to where the federal government has authority to discriminate against Western states that have the exact same language as states east of Colorado," he said.
Ivory said states such as Arkansas, Illinois and Florida had massive federal land ownership within their borders but were successfully able to compel the federal government to transfer the land.
But Ruple said the federal government's right to retain ownership is well established, and critics welcomed the paper's conclusions.
“This paper confirms that Utah’s attempt to seize public lands is illegal and a massive waste of taxpayer resources,” remarked David Garbett, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The state should give up its misguided efforts to deprive Americans of our shared national heritage of public lands.”
The study notes that multiple Western states have followed Utah's lead in either studying the transfer of public lands or enacting legislation of their own.
Utah has set about on a strategy to handle the mechanics of such a transfer, including the establishment of a Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands.
On Tuesday, members hammered out a proposed work plan that details many of the steps that need to take place to ensure a successful transition, such as the jurisdictional role of various governmental entities, how multiple-use designations would be carried out and the task of conducting inventory of the land.
Ivory's Transfer of Public Lands Act was passed by the Legislature two years ago, signed into law by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and has since served as the springboard for a political movement that has garnered attention and support as far away as South Carolina.
With the passage of Ivory's bill also came the establishment of the American Lands Council by rural county commissioners in states such as Utah and Nevada that picked Ivory to be the voice of the movement.
Frustration over federal land policies that include Endangered Species Act protections, management of wild horses, national forest health, grazing and timber harvesting are at the heart of the effort.