SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated at federal land management policies over endangered species, forest health and a host of other issues, a pair of Utah congressmen are launching a working group aimed at finding ways to transfer federal land to local control.
The Federal Land Action Group, organized by Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is designed to find a "legislative framework" for such a land transfer and will host a series of forums with public land experts to craft a bill.
"The federal government has been a lousy landlord for Western states, and we simply think the states can do it better,” Stewart said. “If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.”
The group will build on work already started by Bishop involving public land ownership and what's been accomplished by other states in this arena.
"This group will explore legal and historical background in order to determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners," Bishop said. "We have assembled a strong team of lawmakers, and I look forward to formulating a plan that reminds the federal government it should leave the job of land management to those who know best.”
Other members of the group include Reps. Mark Amodei, R-Nev.; Diane Black, R-Tenn.; Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.; Cresent Hardy, R-Nev.; and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.
Stewart said it has been extremely vital to get support from members of Congress from Eastern and Southern states, who he said often react in disbelief when they learn of the extent of federal land ownership in western states.
"I tell them that one of my counties I represent (Garfield) has 97 percent of its land that is federally controlled and they think I am kidding. They want me to tell them the actual ownership. And I tell them 97 percent. It is a huge problem for all the rural counties in my district," he said.
The Tuesday announcement of the new group's formation brought a scathing response by a local environmental group.
"Our nation's remarkable public lands belong to all Americans. They are our heritage and birthright," said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It's unfortunate that Representatives Bishop and Stewart would promote such a wrongheaded and repudiated version of American history. "
Bishop, the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has had a busy past few weeks sparring with federal agencies on "government overreach" via its land management policies.
Most recently, he's attacked protections for the greater sage grouse and a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act as a move that will compromise the nation's military readiness.
Bishop pointed to an opinion piece crafted by three former senior military officials who say the listing would jeopardize the operations of multiple installations in the West, including Nellis Air Force Base and Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada and the live fire training range at Yakima Training Center in Washington.
"Once again, this administration’s extreme interpretation of outdated environmental laws is undermining our nation’s security. Almost unbelievably, sage-grouse restrictions, based on dubious or outdated science, are currently costing the Department of Defense millions of dollars and impacting critical training and support activities at numerous installations across the country," Bishop said in response.
"If the Obama administration lists the bird under ESA, the needs of our military will be subordinate to an extreme environmental agenda. Our military personnel, who we ask so much of, deserve better.”
Stewart said an endangered species listing of the sage grouse would be devastating to the Utah Test and Training Range, which he called a critical national defense asset not duplicated anywhere in the world.
"Frankly, we are really quite worried," he said, adding that he has met with top Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials repeatedly to voice concerns over the potential listing.
Both Bishop and Stewart met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert Tuesday to discuss issues related to the threatened sage grouse listing.
On Monday, multiple environmental groups criticized Bishop for a provision he inserted into the 2016 National Defense Reauthorization Act that would prevent a listing of the bird for a decade or more.
Stewart unveiled legislation last week that would defer management of the species to the states.