SALT LAKE CITY -- Heather Bennett likens a state effort to gain control of federal lands within state boundaries to a search for a unicorn or a vampire.
"This has a low probability of being successful. Pursuing this effort diverts scarce funds that go to public education and looking for real solutions," she said.
Bennett, who represented a group called For Kids and Land, was one of many residents who spoke out Wednesday in the first public hearing on the state's federal land initiative.
The two-hour hearing is part of an effort to gather data on the impact any change in federal land control might have on the state.
The hearing drew input from a wide range of people and viewpoints, from county commissioners from rural areas of the state to those who worry the state is taking on a fight it can't win.
Economists John Downen and Jan Strambro, of the University of Utah, Paul Jakus, of Utah State University, and Therese Grijalva, of Weber State University, have been charged with helping to assemble the baseline data, so state officials can run different scenarios as the land case unfolds, and to address potential "what-ifs."
The study and analysis is considered a key factor in pushing forward a confrontation over the federal land issue.
The federal government owns more than 67 percent of the land in Utah, and in 2011, lawmakers initiated a series of measures to try to force the federal government to turn those lands over to the state.
John Harja, senior analyst for the Utah Public Lands Policy Office, said the meeting was held to make sure officials aren't overlooking anything in that study.
Public input included testimony from Bert Smith, of Smith and Edwards, who was active in the "Sagebrush Rebellion" of the 1970s in Utah. Smith said he has watched the total decay of rangelands, not because of overgrazing, but because of undergrazing.
"It's been a tragedy how the Forest Service has managed its property. I would say BLM has even done worse. I have a lot of experience to back it up," Smith said.
Robert Comstock had a different take on the problem.
He said seeing the results of federal lands turned over to the states in eastern parts of the U.S. gives a clue that local control isn't always best.
"Let's look at 200 years of industrial development in the East. By the 1960s, rivers were catching on fire. We already have 200 years of history of what states do when given control of natural resources," Comstock said.
Results of the study are due by November 2014, just a month before a state-imposed deadline for the federal government to turn over control of the land by Dec. 31, 2014.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who sponsored the bill initiating the land issue in 2011, also attended the hearing. He did not speak in the public hearing but suggested in an interview with the Standard-Examiner the issue is picking up momentum across the West and the U.S.
He noted that history is on Utah's side in making a legal case for the government to cede control of the land to the state. He said 90 percent of the land in Illinois was once controlled by the federal government, and a similar scenario happened in Missouri.
Ivory scoffed at the idea the state was wasting time and money in pursuing the issue.
"Think of the risk of doing nothing. The federal government is broke and is already cutting money out of schools and making us pay back money we've spent on the promise of not utilizing federal lands. What is the risk of doing nothing?"
The Salt Lake County Republican said a representative in South Carolina ran a resolution this year asking for the transfer of federal lands to Western states for the benefit of the nation. Ivory said other states are expected to follow that model within the year.
Ivory termed the public transfer of lands as the only solution big enough to tackle the state's problem of funding education. He noted one official has said there are more mineral resources in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming than in the entire Middle East.