Citing the consultants' conclusions, the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands on Wednesday voted to direct them to prepare a complaint asserting a claim to 31 million acres of public land. It would be left up to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to decide whether such a case would be filed, mostly likely as a petition for original jurisdiction before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The commission's Republican members, however, made it clear they support litigating the question, even though the consultants cautioned that the suit carries a stiff price tag and its course and outcome would be fraught with uncertainty.
"This is one of the greatest issues facing our state. We are $2.5 billion below average in per-pupil funding. ...This is the most fundamental question concerning our ability to govern ourselves. Are we going to be a state or are we going to be fiefdom? Are we going to live off scraps from the table of a federal government that is broke?" posed Rep. Ken Ivory, the West Jordan lawmaker who sponsored the Transfer of Public Land Act. The 2012 law launched Utah on its quest to "take back" public land lands from the federal government, which proponents say has mismanaged the landscape to the detriment of forest and range health and rural communities.
The lawsuit was endorsed over fierce objections from the panel's two Democrats, Joel Briscoe and Jim Dabakis of Salt Lake City.
"We believe in real stewardship — not sales or leases to the highest bidder," Briscoe said in a statement released by the party. "The commission spent the last year complaining about the federal government and supporting the illegal acts of a single county commissioner," a reference to the commission's efforts to fund a legal defense for Phil Lyman against criminal charges arising for his motorized protest into Recapture Canyon.
"We rarely discussed what is inevitably in the best interest of the grand and beautiful landscapes we are supposed to be protecting," Briscoe continued. "We should refocus the commission on issues that will lead to a better management and preservation of all the lands in Utah."
During the lawyers' presentation, the Democratic lawmakers argued their report may present an imbalanced and overly optimistic view of Utah's chances of winning.
"I want to make sure this is not a rigged law issue," Dabakis said. "The vast majority of legal experts in the country say this is a Hail Mary at best and the state ought to know that going in."
Briscoe said he was "stunned" by the $14 million cost, pointing out it could be spent on many other things to help the state. Republicans said it is a small price compared with what the state loses under federal control.
The Democrats also questioned an apparent lack of transparency over the legal team's work, pointing to invoices released by the state. These invoices detailed all the tasks the lawyers performed and their costs, generally billed at $500 an hour. While the dollar amounts were available to the public, descriptions of all the tasks had all been redacted.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said that information was confidential and protected under client-attorney privilege.
Republicans were dismayed that land transfer remains controversial despite what they contend is obvious evidence that the state can do a better job of managing Utah lands, which will become healthier once the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies stop interfering.
"We are arguing about rights that have been denied our state for 100 years. For this to become a partisan issues is rotten," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.
"It is our duty to care for not only our children, but their children's children, and as we look at stewardship in our sphere, it deals with the two-thirds of the land within our borders and how we interface with our federal counterparts. Their process is dysfunctional and broken," added Stratton, the commission co-chairman.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, framed the potential suit as an existential battle over the customs and culture of the West, alleging federal land managers are intent on limiting hunting, energy development and grazing on public lands.