SALT LAKE CITY – Lawmakers who want to seize control of federal lands are pushing a legal battle they insist is winnable despite multiple warnings their effort is highly unconstitutional and almost sure to fail in court.
Utah is poised to become the first state to pass a package of bills that demand the federal government relinquish claims to huge sections of public land. A proposal that advanced Wednesday demands that by 2014 the federal government cede control of nearly 30 million acres -- nearly 50 percent of the entire state.
A bill setting an identical deadline is also moving in the Arizona Legislature.
Rep. Ken Ivory, who is leading the effort in Utah and helped draft model legislation for use in other states, said the federal government doesn't treat states like equal partners in land management.
"If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say pretty please, or mother may I," Ivory said.
Driving the legislative frustration is an ongoing anger over missed opportunities to develop and mine lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.
There is also concern that access to state-owned or private lands will be increasingly restricted by Congress or even with the stroke of a president's pen, which happened in 1996 when President Bill Clinton created the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
"In our area, we feel that we have federal land management policies that ignore the needs of state, county or local residents," said Dirk Clayson, a commissioner in rural Kane County, Utah, which has less than 10 percent privately-owned land. "Even well-meant efforts from federal officials seem to get tied up with policy decisions ... that are not responsive to local needs."
While Clayson doesn't think state control will solve all the issues, he said it would give the counties a more accessible partner.
"There's risks, but there's a general feeling that we will have a much more effective working relationship with the state," Clayson said. "After all, they're only a four-hour automobile drive away from us."
Critics, however, argue the bills are almost all unconstitutional and amount to nothing more than chest-thumping political statements that waste taxpayer money. Even Utah's legislative attorneys have warned the bills will likely not withstand a court challenge.
"This bill is likely unconstitutional and will engage us in a legal battle with the federal government," Utah Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said. "We're likely to eventually lose in this endeavor ... Simply inviting a lawsuit where we'll be spending time and energy to lose is not the best policy."
But the fight is worth it for many Western lawmakers because they see the potential for millions of dollars in revenue from taxes, development rights or even the sale of lands.
Pressing the federal government to resolve the issue politically or take it to court is the goal, said Utah state Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
"This is not a tanks, swords or horses issue," Niederhauser said. "There is a peaceful way to do this."