Public-Lands Bill Giving Utah Control to Become Law

Gov. Gary Herbert will sign a bill that demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in Utah by 2014, setting the table for a potential legal battle over millions of acres in the state.
by | March 23, 2012
 

Gov. Gary Herbert will sign a bill Friday that demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in Utah by 2014, setting the table for a potential legal battle over millions of acres in the state.

House Bill 148, which easily passed the Legislature, is saddled with a warning from legislative attorneys that there is a high probability it will be found unconstitutional. But Republican lawmakers and Herbert are optimistic about their chances in court.

Ideally, state and federal officials should work together to improve access and increase development opportunities on public lands, especially for energy projects, Herbert said last month. Alternatively, the state's congressional delegation would be able to work through Congress to give the state more control.

If those approaches fail, Herbert said a lawsuit to answer the constitutional question needs to remain an option.

"Sometimes there are differences we can't resolve," Herbert said.

Opponents, including Utah Democrats and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the bill is not only unconstitutional but bad public policy. If implemented, they said it could eliminate important protections from development and vehicle use for wildlife refuges, forests and other sensitive areas.

At the core of the issue is limited access to about 28 million acres of federal land, which hurts energy development, recreation and grazing. State lawmakers claim the federal lands cost the state millions of dollars every year, although no comprehensive studies have been done to quantify those losses.

The bill exempts national parks, military installations, Native American reservations and congressionally approved wilderness areas and monuments. It primarily focuses on lands controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"The current situation is not what was intended to become of the West, yet greedy Washington bureaucrats have decided that hoarding land in the federal estate is more important than education," U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said. "Like most Utahns, I disagree."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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