Lawmakers advance raft of bills to further state control over lands
Published: February 26, 2014 08:00PM
Updated: February 26, 2014 10:37PM

A House panel on Wednesday advanced a suite of bills aimed at asserting state dominion over public lands, a policy goal that reflects Utah’s impatience with federal agencies that manage most of the state’s land base.

HB67 seeks to empower local law enforcement, while another, HB149, would limit federal officers’ ability to enforce state laws on public lands.

A third, HB151, would set up the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands whose charge would be to advance the state’s takeover of 30 million acres of federal land in Utah. Under the bill sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, this eight-member panel would meet eight times a year to review the state’s progress and make recommendations, including hiring lawyers, preparing litigation and crafting legal strategy in anticipation of a court battle with the feds.

“There needs to be significant preparation to ensure the argument is ripe if it’s presented in that venue,” Stratton told the House Natural Resource, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

Numerous witnesses testified Wednesday that federal-land management is wreaking environmental havoc in the form of congested, dying forests primed for burning, wild horses eating up forage, and protected prairie dogs spreading bubonic plague.

HB67 would give county sheriffs jurisdiction over national monuments and recreation areas, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante and Glen Canyon, in their counties if they believe a situation is persisting on these lands that poses a threat to public health, safety and welfare in their counties.

Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, sponsored the bill to expand on a measure enacted last year that covered land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Most crucially it would set up a process for the state to defend counties against any federal action arising from a sheriff’s exercise of this law to tackle “an imminent threat.”

The measure would resolve tension between two legal principles colliding on Utah’s public lands, according to Mark Ward, an attorney for the Utah Association of Counties.

“One is constitutional deference to federal supremacy. That’s the glue that holds our federalist society together,” Ward told the committee. “The other is the sworn duty on part of a county sheriff to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. This bill does everything to encourage an outcome that is orderly.”

Committee chairman Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, sponsored HB149 to correct constitutional defects of his law that was blocked by a federal judge last year after enactment. The legislation is needed to return supreme jurisdiction to elected sheriffs, whose authority has been eroded in the past two decades since BLM rangers began “assimilating” state laws into their law-enforcement duties, Noel said. As a result, citizens have been subject to onerous fines for traffic citations and other minor violations, yet would have to travel to a U.S. magistrate, often hundreds of miles away, to challenge the charge.

bmaffly@sltrib.com