SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill Friday that demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in Utah by 2014, setting the table for a potential legal battle over millions of acres in the state.
House Bill 148, which easily passed the Legislature, is saddled with a warning from legislative attorneys that there is a high probability it will be found unconstitutional. But Republican lawmakers and Herbert are optimistic about their chances in court, especially if they can persuade other Western states to pass similar legislation.
Ideally, state and federal officials should work together to improve access and increase development opportunities and improve conservation on public lands, Herbert said. Alternatively, the state’s congressional delegation would be able to work through Congress to give the state more control.
If those approaches fail, Herbert said, a lawsuit to answer the constitutional question needs to remain an option.
“It’s not a slam dunk, but there is legal reasoning and a rational thought process,” Herbert said. “But this is the first step in a long journey. There is a lot of education needed to raise awareness.”
Opponents, including Utah Democrats and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the bill is not only unconstitutional but bad public policy. If implemented, they said, it could eliminate important protections from development and vehicle use for wildlife refuges, forests and other sensitive areas.
“The state has proven itself time and again to be a bad manager of public lands. … This is a political stunt,” said David Garbett, an attorney with the environmental group. “It’s amazing that in one quixotic act they’ve offended the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the state’s enabling act.”
Legal experts have also said the state has no standing, noting that Utah, Arizona and other states passed similar legislation during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s.
So far, only Arizona has joined the fight, with legislation that has passed the state Senate. State Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, who sponsored the measure, said it’s designed to put the federal government on notice.
Melvin said federal regulations are killing industries like mining and timber, and the state could collect more money in property taxes if some of that land is sold.