SALT LAKE CITY -- Setting a deadline for the federal government to relinquish its ownership of public lands within Utah could finally force a resolution to the decades long debate, Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday.
Even if the proposal results in yet another costly court battle with the federal government, Herbert said the fight is worth it. Utah is already locked in litigation with federal officials over the state's immigration enforcement law, wilderness proposals from the Interior Department and access to roads that cross federal lands.
House Bill 148, which is currently awaiting debate in the Utah House, sets a deadline of 2014 for the transfer of federal lands to the state. National parks and designated wilderness areas would be exempted.
Legislative attorneys say in a review note included with the bill that the law has a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.
Ideally, Herbert said, the state and federal officials should work together to improve access and increase development opportunities on public lands, especially for energy projects. 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.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, urged legislators during a speech that a strong stand is needed on the issue of public lands.
Along with HB 148, there is a bill that would allow local governments to seize federal land by using eminent domain as well as resolutions condemning the federal control of millions of acres in the state.
"I really don't care what it is, pass it," Bishop said of the various bills. "All I need is one arrow to get over the wall and hit its mark and we are OK. So as many as you shoot, fine."