SALT LAKE CITY — Bouyed by a legal analysis that shows the state is on sound footing to mount its fight over control of federal lands, state lawmakers have instructed consultants to prepare a draft of a potential lawsuit.
Should the state move forward with the suit, the Utah Attorney General's Office will ultimately decide whether to use the consultants' draft or come up with its own arguments pushing Utah's efforts to get control of 31 million acres of federally controlled land.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and House chairman of the Utah Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands, briefed lawmakers Wednesday during a meeting of the House GOP caucus on the latest updates of legal and procedural activities being conducted in the lands fight.
So far, the commission has approved expenditures of just over $900,000 out of the $2 million appropriated in the effort for legal and public relations services.
The contracts are with Davillier Law Group and Strata Policy.
Stratton told reporters after the caucus that if there’s not a new national monument designation and if the Public Lands Initiative from Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is approved, “there may never be” a need for the lawsuit to be filed.
He said once the lawsuit draft is completed, it will be turned over to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who will make the final decision over whether the state takes the federal government to court. The draft lawsuit will not be made public, Stratton said.
Utah's leaders are concerned President Barack Obama will exercise his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the Bears Ear National Monument called for by some Native Americans who want the 1.9 million acres set aside in San Juan County.
Such a designation will stoke fresh resentment among those leaders over federal land control in a state in which 67 percent of the land mass is owned and managed by the federal government.
Utah's conservative leaders say an increasingly uncooperative stance by the top echelon of federal land management agencies is central to their motivation to regain control of lands it says were promised to Utah at statehood.
In 2012, the Utah Legislature approved and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demands the federal government cede title or risk being sued.
Stratton said with the current vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, there would likely be a 4-4 split on the issue.
Utah has several other lawsuits pending against the federal government, including complaints stemming from the rollout of federal sage grouse management plans, fights over disputed roads and the Clean Power Plan.
On Wednesday, Kathleen Clarke, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, said the fight over control of the so-called RS2477 roads continues to play out on multiple stages, including a pending decision in the Utah Supreme Court over the statute of limitations on the issue.
Utah's legal team on the roads issue is in the midst of deposing hundreds of witnesses, a tedious but somewhat frantic effort because so many of them are succumbing to old age, she said in a briefing to the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.
Environmental groups and other critics continue to hammer the state on its posture against the federal government, particularly the lands fight. They argue it is a lost cause and financial folly, without public support.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche