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Herbert signs bill demanding feds cede public lands to Utah

Looking west/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip in far southwestern Uintah County.
Looking west/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip in far southwestern Uintah County.
Ray Bloxham , SUWA

SALT LAKE CITY — Saying it's a fight worth having, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill Friday demanding the federal government relinquish its public lands in Utah.

He said he was compelled to sign the legislation because the status quo is not acceptable.

"We feel the federal government has failed to keep its promises to the state of Utah," Herbert said. "We feel it's time we do something about that."

HB148 calls for the federal government to cede control of about 22 million acres of land in Utah and sets a Dec. 31, 2014, date for it to comply. State lawmakers say they prefer to reach a political solution, but set aside $3 million for a possible court showdown. The demand does not include national parks, national monuments or designated wilderness areas.

The state contends the government broke promises made at statehood to transfer the lands to the state where it could generate billions of dollars in tax revenue.

Republican leaders say state management of the land would foster economic development and fund Utah's public education system, which typically ranks last in per-pupil spending nationwide.

Herbert said "unelected federal administrators who sometimes don't care about the challenges" facing Utah and the West manage the state's public lands.

The Salt Lake office of U.S. Bureau of Land Management declined to comment when reached Friday afternoon. "We're not going to respond to the governor on that," said Beverly Gorny, public affairs officer.

Democratic legislators opposed the legislation, calling it unconstitutional and a waste of time and money. Legislative attorneys have told lawmakers any attempt to enforce the measure would have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.

"Eminent domain of federal lands is not a viable solution to anything other than padding Republican egos. These are meaningless message bills, and they make Utah state government look silly," Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said.

Republican members of Utah's congressional delegation joined Herbert in the bill signing. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, last week pledged to run legislation on the federal level patterned after the Utah law.

Hatch said federal management has thwarted the state's effort to develop the land.

"We're tired of it," he said.

States such as North Dakota and Texas that have recently discovered oil on private property don't have go to the federal government "hat in hand" for permission to drill, he said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said maybe it's time to start a new Occupy movement: Occupy BLM. He said it's about time to let Utah occupy Utah.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, quoted lyrics from a song called "Cap in Hand" by the Scottish folk rock band The Proclaimers: "I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand."

"I don't know if they ever toured Utah, but I invite them to visit," he said.

Lee said Utah's best days are ahead of it. "This bill moves us in that direction."

Bill sponsor Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said Utah can't continue to count on federal dollars, including the $5 billion that is part of the $13 billion state budget the Legislature approved for 2013. Having the state manage the lands would help solve national debt problems, he said.

"This is not just a matter of chest-thumping in Utah," he said.

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