Local government entities in Utah — from cities and counties to school boards and universities — are free to support and advocate for federal lands designations under a bill approved by the House on Monday.
But those entities would have to make a trip to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee and explain themselves to the state’s federal government-averse lawmakers under the bill HB78, which passed on a largely party-line 55-18 vote.
“I’m in no means trying to take away local control by the county or the city,” said bill sponsor Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, adding that his proposal is meant to ensure “coordination” with the state.
An earlier version of Albrecht’s bill prohibited counties from supporting designations without legislative approval and much of Monday’s floor debate focused on clarifying what the latest iteration of HB78 does and does not require. The bill follows the controversial designation of the Bear Ears National Monument by then-President Barack Obama, which was subsequently reduced by President Donald Trump.
Rep. Phil Lyman, a former commissioner of San Juan County, as well as most state lawmakers, opposed the designation and supported Trump’s rescissions. But a new Navajo- and Democrat-led San Juan County Commission elected in November has reversed some of those positions, indicating support for a restoration of the Bears Ears monument.
Other locally driven conservation efforts have also been launched by the Central Wasatch Commission and Emery County.
The current version of HB78 approved by the House states that the interim committee will “review” a government entity’s support for proposed designations. And Albrecht was pressed by a Democratic colleague to confirm that the bill, if enacted into law, does not require “approval” by that committee.
“I believe the words speak for themselves,” Albrecht said.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, gave a lengthy anecdote on the House floor comparing the relationship of the federal and state governments to his childhood nickname, “Chunky." He said he hated the nickname, but he liked being the anchor position in a game of tug-of-war because it meant he’d be the last person on his team to go into the mud.
He said federalism is like a game of tug-of-war, and HB78 preserves the state’s role of anchoring its team of local government entities.
“We have to be chunky,” Ivory said, “and we have to pull on the rope.”
The bill will now move to the Utah Senate for consideration.