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Utah lawmakers flex muscle in federal lands fight

Crews battle the Shingle Fire east of Cedar City and near the Duck Creek Village Monday, July 2, 2012.
Crews battle the Shingle Fire east of Cedar City and near the Duck Creek Village Monday, July 2, 2012.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Never mind the sequester and the predicted cataclysmic impacts to federal agencies.

Conservative lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill said the looming fiscal distress is proof the federal government ought to bow out of management of federal lands in the state, including snapping up water rights to control grazing by ranchers and mismanaging forests until they burn.

The anti-federal sentiment — especially related to public lands management — is gathering more momentum this legislative session, sailing on the tailwinds stoked by the passage of the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act two years ago.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, sponsored the measure demanding the federal government cede title to its lands in Utah, with some exceptions such as national parks. Now, he wants to serve notice that the same idea applies to one of Utah's most precious resources — its water.

In a resolution unveiled this week, Ivory said the stewardship and jurisdiction over Utah waterways to be managed for best use lies solely in the hands of the state and those who own the water rights, not federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service.

HJR14 says it's the state's responsibility to manage and protect the resource, especially given that Utah is the second most arid state in the nation.

"When it comes to water, there is nothing more critical to the life, health, safety and welfare of Utah residents," Ivory said.

But federal agencies have been using "pressure" to force changes in or relinquishing of water rights by threatening to pull grazing permits, he said. The resolution adds that the U.S. Forest Service has filed more than 16,000 water-rights claims of ownership on livestock watering rights across the state.

"They've threatened to not renew the grazing permits unless they sign over water rights to the United States," Ivory said. "What will that look like if we let them control the water? We saw what it looked like with the forests."

Both Ivory's measure and one introduced Wednesday by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, are bullhorn pronouncements that the state intends to follow the legal directive in June's U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare.

Ivory said that ruling affirmed that states are "separate and independent sovereigns" free to defend their own prerogatives when they do not want to embrace federal policies as their own.

"The court said states are sovereign and independent, and we need to act like it," he said. "We get what we are going to tolerate, and what we have been tolerating is ever expanding control over every aspect of our lives."

HJR15 accuses federal land agencies of mismanaging public lands to the extent public safety is at risk by allowing forests to grow out of control so fires are catastrophic. It also blames impediments that are placed in the way of fighting the fires because they occur on federal lands.

The 2012 Shingle Creek Fire, Roberts' resolution points out, was one-third contained and four bulldozers were available for use by 6 p.m. the day the fire broke out.

"But since the fire was on (Forest Service) land, only one bulldozer was allowed to operate until 10 p.m. and was only allowed to operate one blade wide and dig no deeper than 2 inches," the resolution states.

The fire ended up burning more than 8,000 acres, damaging the watershed and leaving the area prone to mudslides and debris flows, according to the resolution.

The aftermath of the Seeley Fire will play out even longer because debris flow and sediment will be major issues impacting the watershed and local cities in the years to come, the resolution states.

Ivory said because local and state agencies have chosen to defer to the federal government's land management practices and even to agency fire responses, the effect has been the creation of an untenable situation that puts lives and communities at risk.

"We are supposed to sit around and wait for the forests to burn down," he said. "It doesn't make sense."

The resolution urges the state to throw its support behind counties and cities if they stand up to the federal government on land management issues.

Such a legal showdown has played out in the Old West town of Tombstone, Ariz., where the Forest Service has refused to allow heavy equipment into a wilderness area to repair lines providing the town's chief source of water.

The water rights predate the Wilderness Act, which the Forest Service said requires it to follow a lengthy review process to allow repairs to the lines to happen. Ivory said what is ironic is that the lines were damaged in a debris flow in the aftermath of a wildfire on federal lands that weren't managed properly at the outset.

"These things are happening all over the West," Ivory said.

On Wednesday, the Utah House of Representatives endorsed a legislative measure that directs a study and financial analysis of Ivory's public lands act.

HB142, sponsored by Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, calls for a detailed report on federal lands' impacts to sources of revenue to the state; whether federal funds have been sufficient to manage those lands; and what type of economic benefits could be realized at a greater extent if the state took control.

In a lively discussion on the House floor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, urged his colleagues' support.

"We have to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough.' We cannot take a moderate position. We have to stand up and be counted," Noel said. "And if you represent a rural area, you understand the overriding oppression of federal intervention into our lives better than anyone else."

Several Democrats said they are supporting Barrus' bill because it will demonstrate once and for all the costly and foolhardy nature of the state's pursuit of federal lands.

The bill now goes to the Senate.


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