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Consultants raking in millions on Utah’s anti-fed campaigns

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 06:03 pm

Utah lawmakers were good to consultants this year.

Legislation passed this session will release a deluge of taxpayer dollars — more than $12 million — for state leaders' campaign against the federal government, aimed at taking over public lands and extracting the natural resources they hold.

New appropriations offer a bonanza for consultants retained to pressure Congress, sway public opinion, sue the federal government, intervene in environmental lawsuits, craft legal strategies, challenge federal scientists and develop land-use plans.

And private contractors are the beneficiaries of the legislative war chest — the economists, planners, range-management advisers, soil scientists, hydrologists and, of course, the lobbyists and lawyers who will be hired to provide the white papers to back up Utah's plans.

Some will boost familiar battles over 12,000 "RS 2477" roads and Utah's demand for title to 31 million acres of public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Others will challenge grazing policy and oil and gas leasing plans.

But the single biggest winner is anti-predator activist Ryan Benson, whose nonprofit Big Game Forever reeled in $2.5 million that renews his contracts to pressure federal officials to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act and not list Greater sage grouse.

Republican state leaders say the spending is necessary to protect state interests in the face of federal overreach.

"We need to have additional people on the ground to analyze the data," said Kanab Republican Rep. Mike Noel, a former BLM employee. "There is a lot of analysis [by federal scientists] that is not being done properly."

Critics, on the other hand, suspect lawmakers are indulging in their own overreach at the expense of taxpayers and genuine progress.

Fighting with the feds is undermining collaboration on land-use decisions and setting back efforts to improve land management, according to Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Brian King.

"It's an us-versus-them mentality. It's an under-seige mentality that wants to create and foster an adversarial relationship with the federal government," King said. "This is not a productive way to carry on a rational dialogue to solve these problems on the ground. When you inject a bunch of ideological crap, it doesn't serve the process well."

Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0 • A conviction persists among rural Utahns — and in the halls of the Capitol — that federal land agencies run roughshod over local interests due to the alleged influence of environmentalists in the Obama administration.

Many believe the state needs to push back as the feds consider new management directions for grazing, ground and surface water, mineral leasing, roads and motorized access, wild horses, law enforcement and endangered species.

"Under [the Obama] administration, there has been a very aggressive effort to control public lands, to curtail access to public lands," Kathleen Clarke, director of the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, told lawmakers at a budget meeting. "It's this multitude of actions that have kept us busy and resulted in the ramp up of our employment base."

Clarke's office will get nearly $5 million beyond its $2.3 million base budget — mostly to finance Utah's quest for title to 12,000 disputed roads, so-called RS2477 claims named after the Civil War-era statute that once granted counties ownership of routes that cross federal lands.

Noel has successfully argued Utah should cover some of the legal expenses generated by counties leading the RS2477 charge, particularly Kane, Garfield and San Juan.

Kane has already spent $3 million.

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