Legal scholars: Utah's push for US land would hurt public

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Posted: Feb 08, 2015 6:42 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's push to wrest control of 31 million acres of federally controlled land would lead to less public access, less public involvement in land-use decisions and more drilling and strip mining, according to a new report by legal scholars.

The report, by the University of Utah law school's Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, also concludes the move could lead to a better chance of imperiled plants and wildlife winning protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The report was co-authored by Bob Keiter, the Stegner center's director, and John Ruple, who served in the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office under former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

"The public would have less, not more, input into land management, and all who utilize what are now public lands — industry and recreation interests alike — would likely see the cost of access increase substantially," Ruple said. "In short, the public would suffer from this misguided effort."

Utah Assistant Attorney General Tony Rampton disputed the report's finding that state control would lead to diminished public access and rampant drilling and strip mining.

"One of the largest economic drivers (in Utah) is tourism and recreation," he told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1DRB2VN ). "It is in the state's interest to preserve, protect and promote that activity, just as much as mineral development. It's all about balance."

Utah's Republican governor and legislators argue local officials would be better land managers and state control would make money for the state. They passed a 2012 law demanding the federal government hand over the land by 2015, but the federal government failed to do so.

The land demand does not include national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, with the exception of the roughly 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and its underground coal reserves.

The Stegner report concludes the 2012 law does nothing to ensure that the public continues to enjoy the same level of access and involvement in decision-making as guaranteed under federal law. The report urges the Legislature to establish management priorities and mandate resource inventories for transferred lands and to enact a state version of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

"Enactment of such statutes in states seeking to take over public lands would send a much-needed message about transparency, accountability and commitment to the public interest," they wrote.

But Rampton said the state has no interest in approving NEPA, the landmark 1969 federal law that requires analysis and disclosure of project impacts on public lands.

"The review is so drawn-out and provides no certainty, but rather extenuates uncertainty," he told The Tribune. "The feds can't act quickly because they have to deal with this process and when they finish the process, they have to deal with litigation."

Republican lawmakers in December said a report, produced by three state universities, shows it won't be a financial burden for Utah if the state manages to succeed in its push to take control of the land.

But Ruple said Utah would have to substantially increase energy production to cover the costs of managing lands and to protect the revenue stream counties now enjoy from federal royalties, which amounted to more than $180 million in 2013.

"Instead of a potential surplus, we see a potential deficit," he said. "The only realistic option is more development."

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com