Utah closer to legal, political solutions to federal lands issue

Mar 7 2012 - 7:32pm

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Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville

SALT LAKE CITY -- State lawmakers moved a step closer to both legal and political solutions to wresting control of federal land from the federal government.

Two separate measures addressing local control of federal land within the Beehive State were approved Wednesday morning in the Senate.

One of the bills, HB 148, was amended, then given final approval in the House. It is now on the way to the governor's desk.

One resolution already headed for Gov. Gary Herbert's desk is HJR3, sponsored by Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville. It gives a historical context to Utah's quest to gain control of up to 67 percent of the property within its borders.

The resolution calls for the federal government to turn over control of the land to the state by Dec. 31, 2014.

Barrus has described his resolution as a means of seeking a political solution to the issue.

Few expect the issue can be resolved that easily.

HB 148, sponsored by Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, calls for the state to initiate a study on the potential transfer and sets the table for possible legal action.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, an attorney, referred to the bill as the most reasonable approach to potential litigation with the federal government that he has seen.

He said the enabling act under which Utah became a state represents a contract between the state and federal government. He said congressional action in 1976 opting out of those enabling acts did not diminish the legality of that pact.

"The government has the right to handle federal lands. It does not have the power to breach a contract," Valentine said.

"I see the elements of what I think is the proper approach to be done. There are some constitutional principles behind it. No state has yet pushed action on enabling act legislation."

The potential transfer of public land is considered a key element to educational funding, said Barrus, who outlined the historic promise made in 1780 to allow states to fund education through the transfer of federal lands to the state.

The federal government also made promises as recently as 1976, several lawmakers say.

Barrus' resolution lists the grievances.

Ivory said millions of dollars annually in potential revenue are at stake in allowing Utah to control federal lands within the boundaries of the state.

Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow said the state is ready to take on the issue, if necessary. That action would come despite attorneys for the Legislature who suggest any action could be unconstitutional.

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