Utah funds federal land transfer effort | TSLN.com

Utah funds federal land transfer effort

The movement to localize control of federal lands is gaining financial support in at least one state.

For the second year in a row the Utah state legislature appropriated $2 million to help finance efforts to place federal lands under state management.

State representative Ken Ivory sponsored a 2012 bill requiring the federal government to relinquish management of about 30 million acres of federal land, or half of the state's massive federal land load. The bill, signed by the governor, included a provision for the state to sue the federal government if the request wasn't carried out by December 31, 2014.

At the time, Governor Gary Herbert said the legal battle likely to ensue was "a fight worth having."

It appears the fight is on.

According to Ivory, an attorney and head of a group called American Lands Council, his fellow state legislators approved $2 million in funding for the "transfer of federal lands" effort, both in 2014 and 2015, for a total of $4 million.

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Ivory said about a quarter of the 2014 appropriation was used for an economic analysis conducted by three major universities. The researchers concluded that state-managed land is healthier, provides better access and generates positive revenue, as opposed to losses on the federal level.

Another economic analysis determined that the state of Utah can afford to "engage," in the pursuit of the land transfer Ivory said. "The next step is to move forward with the education, litigation, legislation," in order to fulfill the state law calling for the transfer.

A "request for proposals" has been made and Ivory and his supporters hope to use the state funding to secure legal counsel in order to "conduct legal analysis and prepare strategy." He expects that by the end of this year they will "have things ready."

He added, "We will continue to try and negotiate and work with our federal partner at all stages and once we develop the strategies and claims we will move forward on our timetable."

Tooele, Utah, rancher Bruce Clegg operates on private property and also uses some U.S. Forest Service grazing permits.

He supports the most recent state law to help finance federal land transfer efforts. "It's all positive and all a shot in the arm. We're getting our legislators educated on the importance of this issue."

About 85 percent of his state's land is federally managed, he said.

The group seeks state management of mostly U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. According to their policy statement, they aren't trying to change oversight of existing national parks, congressionally mandaged wilderness areas, Indian reservations or military installations.

By putting the state in charge of USFS and BLM land management, Clegg, a former county commission chairman, hopes land management would be more hands-on, logical and livestock-friendly. "The federal government is doing all they can to get cattle off the land because of environmental pressure. If we could use science to determine how to manage the range instead of public pressure, we'd get it utilized a lot better."

Ivory adds that animal units per month on the federal lands within Utah have been cut from 5.5 million to effectively 800,000 (1.2 million with 400,000 suspended) in recent years.

Fire danger on the range and forest is a major concern, Clegg said. "Our forest needs to be managed to where they are producing timber and getting rid of combustible materials. Now they are just managing it to go up in flames."

A sustainable and healthy forest in his area should contain about 400 trees per acre, and responsible logging will keep it there, Ivory said. The federal forests in their state are home to 800-1,000 trees per acre.

Even state land is affected, Ivory explained. Access and use restrictions, including a federal shut-down of 12,000 roads are preventing the state from leasing about a million acres of school trust lands. Endangered species designations, energy restrictions, water and air restrictions – "which are coming almost on a daily basis," make the land unusable, Ivory said. The education system is forced to find funding elsewhere when state lands don't provided income as intended.

State, not private oversight of the land is the goal of American Lands Council. "If we sell the land, 95 percent of money would go to the federal government." This is a dicencentive for selling it, Ivory said.

Utah state senator Jim Dabakis, an opponent to the federal lands transfer effort, introduced SB 105, a bill giving a timeline to the lawsuit threat. According to his bill the state would be required to file their federal lands tranfer lawsuit by July 1, 2016.

Dabakis said in news reports that he wants "finality" and that his proposal would "once and for all settle the question about who owns public lands in Utah."

Although the bill died, Dabakis said in a High Country News story last month,"[The bill] has nothing to do with my position on the act. It's about forcing the hand of everybody. It's about forcing the hand of those who've made careers out of this dispute."

Ivory said he did not oppose the bill.

South Dakota state senator Betty Olson, Prairie City, S.D., (R) said she has visited with states attorney Marty Jackley about pursuing a similar tactic in South Dakota. "He [Jackley] suggested we hold to see how Utah makes out in court. There is nothing in the federal constitution allowing the federal government to own any land except for military installations and post offices."

Winner, South Dakota, state senator Billie Suton (D) said he would hesitate to support a similar move in South Dakota without further information.

"I would be a little nervous about the cost to the state if we went down that road of taking back those federal lands," said the assistant minority leader. He cited the high costs of wildfire and pine beetle suppression in the Black Hills.

Referencing the $2 million appropriation, Sutton said, "We don't have the money laying around. From a fiscal standpoint we'd have to weigh the cost-benefit option."

He added that the issue has not been formally discussed in the five years he's been in office. "I'm not saying it won't in the future but to date it hasn't been."

Ivory: Utah should have natural resource access like N.D.

Ken Ivory said according to its constitution, Utah should have no more federal land than North or South Dakota.

“Upon entering the Union, new states agreed to Enabling Acts, which are essentially contracts for statehood. In the Enabling Acts, the federal government promised to dispose of ownership to public lands in the states. Despite similar promises in the Enabling Acts for states east and west of North Dakota, the federal government has failed to honor this promise to the western states.

“The result? Over half of the real estate west of North Dakota is controlled by the federal government – including more than 60 percent of both Idaho and Alaska, close to 70 percent of Utah, over 80 percent of the state of Nevada. In states east of this Federal Fault Line, less than 5 percent of the land is under federal control.

“To put this inequality into perspective, let’s compare North Dakota, a state that lies east of the Federal Fault Line; and Utah, a western state deprived of the same liberty opportunity, and control over its lands.

“The terms of the statehood Enabling Acts for North Dakota and Utah are nearly identical. Looking at key passages side-by-side illustrates the federal government’s illogical double standard.

“The Utah and North Dakota Enabling acts both contemplate that the federal government would transfer title to the public lands within their borders. The key question remains: If the federal government honored North Dakota’s Act, why not treat Utah, and the other western states, on terms of equality and unleash better care and better productivity for the benefit of the whole nation?