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Western lands takeover: Former BLM chief, state lawmaker clash

Debate stems from state and federal tension over control of millions of acres in the West.

First Published Apr 23 2014 02:15 pm • Last Updated Apr 24 2014 12:58 pm

A conservative state lawmaker and a liberal former director of the Bureau of Land Management argued the merits of a debate that’s sweeping the West — whether states should take control of federal lands and would they manage them better.

Their exchange, which included a few pointed barbs, during Wednesday’s Trib Talk may just be round one.

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Former BLM Director Pat Shea challenged state Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, to a formal debate at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, and the lawmaker said he would accept such a challenge.

Wednesday’s conversation identified the deep philosophical disagreement that would underpin any such debate. Ivory argues the federal government used to own much of the land in states like Florida, Illinois and Nebraska and has since turned it over to private owners or the state. He believes it’s time for Western states to demand equal treatment in this matter and if Congress won’t comply, it may be time to launch a major court case. He said the land would be better managed and the profits from mining would help fund the state’s education system.

Shea was dismissive of such an idea.

"I don’t think states are capable of the complexity of managing these lands," he said, accusing Ivory of inflaming local officials to challenge federal land managers when the chances of the state’s gaining control of these lands are remote at best.

The standoff in Nevada between BLM officials and rancher Cliven Bundy served as a backdrop to this philosophical discussion.

Bundy has refused to pay federal grazing fees for more than two decades and now owes more than $1 million. In reaction, the BLM tried to confiscate some of his cattle, which resulted in a tense standoff between federal agents and militia members before the BLM backed down.

Shea called it a dangerous situation and made a plea for more "civil discussions." Ivory declined to say whether he supported Bundy or not, instead arguing if Nevada controlled those lands instead of the BLM, then the dispute never would have risen to such a level.

Morgan Lyon Cotti, with the Hinckley Institute, linked the latest flash point in the always-tense relationship between Western states and the federal government to a rise in tea-party conservatives, saying that elected officials are largely responding to the Republican delegates who helped them win office.

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Polls conducted by Dan Jones and Associates for the Utah Foundation in 2012 found that GOP delegates, often more conservative than the state as a whole, ranked states’ rights as their top issue and allowing more mining and grazing on federal land as their fourth most important issue. Neither issue was among the top priorities of general voters, who focused more on the economy and education.


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