Western lawmakers gather in Utah to talk federal land takeover

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April 20 2014

It’s time for West­ern states to take con­trol of fed­er­al lands with­in their bor­ders, law­mak­ers and coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers from West­ern states said at Utah’s Capi­tol on Friday.

More than 50 polit­i­cal lead­ers from nine states con­vened for the first time to talk about their joint goal: wrest­ing con­trol of oil‑, tim­ber ‑and min­er­al-rich lands away from the feds.

It’s sim­ply time,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R‑West Jor­dan, who orga­nized the Leg­isla­tive Sum­mit on the Trans­fer for Pub­lic Lands along with Mon­tana state Sen. Jen­nifer Field­er. “The urgency is now.”

Utah House Speak­er Becky Lock­hart, R‑Provo, was flanked by a dozen par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing her coun­ter­parts from Ida­ho and Mon­tana, dur­ing a press con­fer­ence after the day­long closed-door sum­mit. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee addressed the group over lunch, Ivory said. New Mex­i­co, Ari­zona, Neva­da, Wyoming, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton also were represented.

The sum­mit was in the works before this month’s tense stand­off between Neva­da ranch­er Cliv­en Bundy and the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment over cat­tle graz­ing, Lock­hart said.

What’s hap­pened in Neva­da is real­ly just a symp­tom of a much larg­er prob­lem,” Lock­hart said.

Field­er, who described her­self as “just a per­son who lives in the woods,” said fed­er­al land man­age­ment is ham­strung by bad poli­cies, politi­cized sci­ence and severe fed­er­al bud­get cuts.

Those of us who live in the rur­al areas know how to take care of lands,” Field­er said, who lives in the north­west­ern Mon­tana town of Thomp­son Falls.

We have to start man­ag­ing these lands. It’s the right thing to do for our peo­ple, for our envi­ron­ment, for our econ­o­my and for our free­doms,” Field­er said.

Ida­ho Speak­er of the House Scott Bed­ke said Ida­ho forests and range­land man­aged by the state have suf­fered less dam­age and water­shed degra­da­tion from wild­fire than have lands man­aged by fed­er­al agencies.

It’s time the states in the West come of age,” Bed­ke said. “We’re every bit as capa­ble of man­ag­ing the lands in our bound­aries as the states east of Colorado.”

Ivory said the issue is of inter­est to urban as well as rur­al law­mak­ers, in part because they see oil­fields and oth­er resources that could be devel­oped to cre­ate jobs and fund education.

More­over, the fed­er­al government’s debt threat­ens both its man­age­ment of vast tracts of the West as well as its abil­i­ty to come through with pay­ments in lieu of tax­es to the states, he said. Utah gets 32 per­cent of its rev­enue from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, much of it unre­lat­ed to pub­lic lands.

If we don’t stand up and act, see­ing that tra­jec­to­ry of what’s com­ing … those prob­lems are going to get big­ger,” Ivory said.

He was the spon­sor two years of ago of leg­is­la­tion, signed by Gov. Gary Her­bert, that demands the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment relin­quish title to fed­er­al lands in Utah. The law­mak­ers and gov­er­nor said they were only ask­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to make good on promis­es made in the 1894 Enabling Act for Utah to become a state.

The intent was nev­er to take over nation­al parks and wilder­ness cre­at­ed by an act of Con­gress Lock­hart said. “We are not inter­est­ed in hav­ing con­trol of every acre,” she said. “There are lands that are off the table that right­ly have been des­ig­nat­ed by the fed­er­al government.”

A study is under­way at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah to ana­lyze how Utah could man­age the land now in fed­er­al con­trol. That was called for in HB142, passed by the 2013 Utah Legislature.

None of the oth­er West­ern states has gone as far as Utah, demand­ing Con­gress turn over fed­er­al lands. But five have task forces or oth­er analy­ses under­way to get a han­dle on the costs and ben­e­fits, Field­er said.

Utah has been way ahead on this,” Field­er said.