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Utah House demands 30 million acres of federal land

Published March 1, 2012 8:22 am

Politics • Bills likely unconstitutional, according the Legislature's own attorneys.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

By large margins, the House passed a package of bills Wednesday demanding the federal government surrender more than 30 million acres of land within Utah's borders or go to court to force the transfer.

"This is our time to write the history of what will happen in our state.… This is our time to look not to the next election, but to the next generation," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.

In fighting for its rights in the face of skeptical legal scholars, Ivory compared Utah to Dred Scott, who challenged slavery, and Susan B. Anthony, who pressed for women's suffrage.

But Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, called the lands fight a "caper" that short-changes current Utah school children.

"Do we believe that any federal court is really going to give over to Utah all federal lands? … We all know it ain't happenin'" King said. "Do we have any confidence that if we get these federal lands back we'll treat them any better than we treat our kids in terms of how we fund public and higher education?"

The federal government owns about 60 percent of the land in Utah and Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, said that has cost the state trillions of dollars in coal, oil, gas and other economic opportunities because the feds have not transferred ownership to the land as promised when Utah gained statehood.

"It's time to get an answer to the question: Has the state of Utah been wronged by our violation of our contract when we came into this union," he said.

The four bills — HJR3, HCR1, HB148 and HB91 — passed the House by large margins and move to the Senate for consideration.

Legislative attorneys have warned that there is a high probability that the state's efforts are unconstitutional. But Republican legislators, frustrated with the federal government, were undaunted.

"I suspect it will take the Supreme Court less time to throw this out than it takes us to debate it tonight," said Rep. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, "but I'm going to enthusiastically support it because we have to keep trying."

The bills would eliminate the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and most wilderness areas.

National Parks would be returned to the federal government, but the state could first set conditions allowing oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing, logging and travel on the land.

It would not touch on American Indian lands or military installations.