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McEntee: Utah's unwise federal land grab

Published February 22, 2012 4:17 pm

PEG McENTEE
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's easy to understand why Utah wants the U.S. government to cede all federal lands to the state. We live in a time of fervid states' rights activism and the attendant belief that the feds wield all too much power.

The trouble is, what will the state do with those lands if — and that's a big if — it gets them? There might be a mega-sale of leases for oil and gas development, including doubtful and controversial extraction of shale oil, in environmentally sensitive areas. More logging in federal forests, more grazing of cattle, more "multiple use and sustainable development." More off-road vehicles tearing around at will.

On the other hand, Utah would return ownership of the state's five national parks and federally designated wilderness areas to the federal government.

State legislators have developed a set of bills that would do just that, based in part on their reading of the 1894 Utah Enabling Act, which set the stage for the state constitutional convention that resulted in statehood in 1896.

The argument is that, in the Enabling Act, Congress promised to quickly give federal lands back to Utah upon statehood and didn't. I read the document, but decided to turn to the eminent historian Thomas Alexander to help me parse it out.

Alexander, a professor emeritus of history at Brigham Young University, concluded that Utah doesn't have much of a claim.

"I'm not a lawyer, I'm a historian," he said. "But looking at the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Utah Constitution and the Enabling Act, there doesn't seem to be a ground for claiming ownership of this property."

Instead, the act reads, "The people of this State do affirm and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof" — including Indian land — unless the title is "extinguished" by the United States.

The Act did grant land for public education and school trust lands, prisons, public buildings, colleges and even a miners' hospital.

Backers of the bills argue that after statehood, the feds gave in to progressives who argued the nation could take better care of lands than private owners. Agencies such as the Bureaus of Reclamation and Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and others proliferated.

That, says Rep. Roger Barrus, sponsor of HJR3, resulted in an "oppressing and overreaching federal government."

To their credit, the backers would use money earned from state-controlled lands to give a multibillion-dollar boost to public education, which stands dead last in the nation for per pupil funding, and possibly put an end to the state income tax.

Many education organizations, including the State Board of Education and the PTA, support the legislation.

In the short term, though, lawmakers would give $3 million to the Utah Attorney General's Office to fight the feds in court.

It seems inevitable, though, that such a legal battle would go on for years, at unimaginable cost and scant assurance of a Utah victory.

Over the years, we've seen Utah do battle with the feds, and the feds have usually prevailed. This time, the cost to Utah coffers, its people and the land we revere would be far too high.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com.

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