The Utah Senate has passed two bills that seek to claim state ownership of 30 million acres of federal land and set up a state mechanism for managing the new acreage.
The bills were amended to clarify that Utah’s five national parks and numerous congressionally designated wilderness areas would remain under federal control.
Supporters say that the federal ownership has hampered economic development and that freeing those lands up could bring in trillions of dollars in oil, gas, coal and other revenues.
Legislative attorneys have warned that the bills are likely unconstitutional, but supporters argue that the state needs to make its case in court.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said that the lands bills are “a fight and discussion worth having with the federal government.”
National monuments managed by the U.S. National Parks Service would also remain under federal control, but the nearly 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by President Clinton in 1992, would fall under state control.
The measure argues that the federal government promised Utah when it gained statehood that it would transfer ownership of federal land, just as it has done in other states east of the Rocky Mountains. But the federal government broke its promise, the bill asserts, and continues to own about 60 percent of the land in the state.
Opponents and attorneys say the assertion is a misreading of the law and that, in fact, Utah forever forfeited any claims to these lands.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said the bills are meant to address “past, present and continuing breaches” of the federal government’s commitments.
“What is it about the term ‘unconstitutional’ that Utah’s far-right legislators don’t understand?” asked Stephen Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The state of Utah gave up any claim to publicly owned lands in Utah more than a century ago. The argument behind this slate of bills that the state can force the federal government to give up these lands so they can be drilled, mined or developed is going nowhere.”
HJR3, sponsored by Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, demands the transfer of the lands to the state. HB148, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, gives Congress until the end of 2014 to transfer land to Utah and assigns the Constitutional Defense Council to recommend a system to manage the public lands.
Two other bills, sponsored by Rep. Chris Herrod and Rep. Ken Sumsion, are stalled in the Senate and Sumsion said his hope is fading that they will pass the Senate.