Utah vies for control of public land
A new law in Utah demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in the state by 2014, exerting rights rooted in the 1894 Enabling Act that led to Utah’s statehood. The law sets up a potential constitutional challenge over control of millions of acres, according to the Associated Press (AP).
Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill March 23, backed by Republican lawmakers who pushed the measure to easy passage in the Utah legislature. Attorneys for the legislature warn that the law is likely to be found unconstitutional, but Herbert and Republican lawmakers believe they can win in court if they convince other Western states to pass similar measures.
Many residents in Western states have long argued that the federal government controls too much of their land, hampering energy development, recreation and grazing. There are about 28 million acres of federal land in Utah.
Federal land control costs Utah millions of dollars every year, Republican lawmakers say, and restricts the state’s ability to pay for public services such as education. They note that Utah is last in the country in per-pupil spending.
State lawmakers say the act that led to Utah’s statehood contained a promise that the federal government would eventually relinquish control of land there. Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the Utah law, said the measure has relevance beyond Utah.
“This isn’t just a matter of chest-thumping in Utah,” he told AP. “It’s time for us to stand as the model for the Western states, and for the nation, to show what it means to be self-reliant and free.”
The law exempts national parks and other congressionally approved wilderness areas. Still, it would claim control for the state over the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, which has been the focus of constant legal wrangling over land use between state and federal officials.
Opponents of the law, including environmental groups, say it would threaten wildlife refuges and other sensitive areas. They also point out that similar legislation in Western states lost in court challenges.