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Herbert signs bill demanding feds relinquish lands in Utah
Politics » Legislation seeks state takeover of millions of acres of public lands.

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The bill establishes a commission to plan the use for the newly acquired acreage. A study will also be conducted on the costs and benefits of state ownership of the land.

It is not explicit that the state would go to court if Congress fails to respond — that ultimatum was in another public lands bill that did not pass the Legislature — but all parties agree that litigation is a likely outcome.

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"It depends on what happens in the election this fall. If this administration stays we’ll probably end up going the litigation route," said Rep. Rob Bishop. "If there’s a new administration in January, they might bring a new attitude and be more receptive."

Legislative attorneys and legal scholars have both said that Utah’s claim to ownership of the federal land is almost certainly unconstitutional, since Congress has broad authority under the Constitution to manage its property and Utah disclaimed any rights to the land in its enabling act and in the Utah Constitution.

Sen. Mike Lee, who helped craft the legal strategy behind the state action before he was elected to the Senate, said there has never been a case directly challenging whether Congress should have disposed of the land.

Even if there was, Lee said, there is a policy discussion and political discussion about whether Congress should or can manage the land, given the overwhelming federal debt.

Other states considered similar legislation during their legislative sessions this year. Thus far, Utah is alone in passing it, although a bill has passed the Arizona Senate and is pending in the House.

Ivory said there will be an effort to work with other states to over the next year to get them on board.

"Of course it’s helpful, it creates critical mass [but] we have a duty to our kids and a duty to the future of our state to go forward on the rights and promises," Ivory said, citing a Japanese saying: "If we all cross together it’s not scary."

State Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he would be supportive of the state getting some of the federal lands back and working collaboratively with the federal government if there are areas that should be opened, but said the state’s approach is taking a sledgehammer to a mosquito.

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"I just don’t think that any federal judge is going to look at this and say, ‘That’s a legal theory that has real merit,’" he said. "You’re just asking to have the case thrown out, and that’s what we should be hoping for in the sense it will cost taxpayers less than a long, drawn-out fight."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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