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Editorial: Utah makes right call to step back from lands suit

First Published      Last Updated Feb 23 2017 05:56 am

Give Utah legislators credit for backing away from a questionable strategy to sue the federal government to force transfer of federal lands to the state.

It's not a change of heart that led to the decision. It was a change in administrations. With President Donald Trump signaling a deregulated and fossil-fuel-friendly federal government, legislators are now considering a resolution that says they will take their chances on their absentee landlords back in Washington.

Yes, that seems to undermine the basis for the estimated $14 million lawsuit. If this really was an issue of state sovereignty, why would it matter who is president? It's as transparent as Californians now pushing for secession. But this is also the kind of practical decision that Utahns would like to see more of, even if legislators haven't committed to completely giving up the fight or halting payments to the expensive lawyers they engaged.




It looks like Utah is about to test the idea that federal regulation has stifled energy development here. Utah and the feds split the royalties from wells on federal land. If it becomes easier to drill in the state, will more wells be drilled? Oil prices have climbed recently, but they're still in the mid- $50 per barrel, well below the level needed to stimulate drilling in the past. And increased infrastructure elsewhere in the country (Keystone? DAPL?) makes it hard to predict higher prices, even as OPEC tries to push them higher.

Back in the days of federal tyranny (2015), Rep. Ken Ivory sold the lawsuit as a way to address Utah's per-pupil shortfall, which he estimated would take $2.5 billion per year to bring us up to the national average. Not a chance. Even if legislators sold off land in big chunks, something they have pledged not to do, the resulting money wouldn't produce that much sustained income.

Speaking of selling off land, even the name of this year's legislative resolution is an acknowledgement that the legislators have a public relations problem in the post-Outdoor Retailer era. While last year's resolution on this was simply called "Concurrent resolution on public lands litigation," this year's version is called "Concurrent resolution to secure the perpetual health and vitality of Utah's public lands and its status as a premier public lands state." That makes it sound like something that could have been written by Robert Redford.

In other words, we're getting back to where we started, back to a concept that even former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Rep. Mike Noel agree on: multiple use. There have always been differences about which are the best uses, but turning that into a constitutional question only put the solutions farther out of reach.

Kudos to legislators for backing off the lands-transfer lawsuit and instead working with the current owner. The economic and environmental challenges of managing those lands haven't gone away with the new president. If Utah gets a bigger role, it will also have a bigger responsibility.

 

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