Lawmakers from Western states said Friday that the time has come for them to take control of federal lands within their borders and suggested the standoff this month between a Nevada rancher and the federal government was a problem waiting to happen.
"What’s happened in Nevada is really just a symptom of a much larger problem," Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, a Republican, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The lawmakers -- more than 50 of them from nine Western states -- made their proclamations at the Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Lands, in Utah, which was scheduled before this month’s standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management.
The agency rounded up hundreds of Bundy's cattle, saying he hasn't paid more than $1 million in grazing fees he owes for trespassing on federal lands since the 1990s. But Bundy does not recognize federal authority on the land, which his family has used since the 1870s.
The agency released the cattle after a showdown last weekend with angry armed protesters whom Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid referred to as “domestic terrorists.”
Whether the federal government will use the courts system or other methods to try to resolve such disputes remains unclear. Reid, D-Nev., said earlier this week that he talked to Attorney General Eric Holder and that a task force might be formed, in response. However, a law enforcement official said Saturday that there are no plans for a task force.
The idea of Western states taking control of parts of wide tracts of federal land is nothing new. Those involved in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion and similar movements have argued for decades that states and local governments west of the Mississippi River often can best manage the land and that doing so would allow them to use it to improve their economies.
On Friday, political leaders from the nine states convened for the first time to talk about their joint goal of wresting control of oil-, timber -and mineral-rich lands away from the U.S. government, according to the paper.
"It’s simply time," said Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, a Republican who co-organized the summit with Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder. "The urgency is now."
Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee also spoke to the attendees.
Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke argued that Idaho forests and rangeland managed by the state have suffered less damage and watershed degradation from wildfire than have lands managed by federal agencies, the newspaper reported.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.