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.
The sponsor of the Utah law, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the issue carries weight on a national scale and is extremely important to the entire region.
"This isn't just a matter of chest-thumping in Utah," Ivory said. "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."
At the core of the issue in all of the states is limited access to federal land, which hurts energy development, recreation and grazing. There are approximately 28 million acres of federal land in Utah, accounting for about 50 percent of the state. State lawmakers claim the federal lands cost the state millions of dollars every year, although no comprehensive studies have quantified those losses.
The Utah bill exempts national parks, military installations, Native American reservations and congressionally approved wilderness areas and monuments. It primarily focuses on lands controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Most notably, the state would lay claim to the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, which President Bill Clinton designated in 1996. Since that declaration, state officials and residents of the rural area, which is dominated by red rock landscapes, have waged an endless battle with federal authorities over land use.
"The current situation is not what was intended to become of the West, yet greedy Washington bureaucrats have decided that hoarding land in the federal estate is more important than education," said U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "Like most Utahans, I disagree."
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin. Associated Press writer Michelle Price in Phoenix contributed to this report.