States Rights

Utah inching toward lawsuit in push to control federal lands

Utah lawmakers inched closer to a possible lawsuit in the state’s push to seize control of federal lands with the selection Tuesday of two consulting firms that will prepare a legal strategy and attempt to sway public opinion in their favor.

A Utah legislative commission voted unanimously to pay up to $2 million for the work to a law firm and public policy research organization. New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group will prepare an analysis by year’s end of the historical and constitutional grounds for transferring the lands, said Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, chair of a commission for the stewardship of public lands.

Stratton said he only expects to use a fraction of the funds allotted for the work, but said that figure has not been set yet.

Davillier was selected because of its expertise in constitutional law while Logan, Utah-based Strata was chosen for its knowledge of public land issues and its “conservative mindset,” Stratton said. Strata will utilize social media and Utah State University students to make sure the public has the accurate facts about why the state wants to take over operations of about 31 million acres of federal lands, or about half of the state.

Utah passed a law in 2012 demanding the federal government hand over the lands by the end of 2014, arguing the state would be a better manager and local control would allow Utah to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres.

But that deadline quietly passed with no such transfer, something predicted by both critics and supporters of the state’s push for control. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose department is in charge of the federal land in Utah, has said it’s a waste of time and resources for Utah to debate taking over the land.

No matter, the GOP-dominated Utah legislature demonstrated once again Tuesday at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City that they are intent on charging forward even though they recognize that the ultimate decision about a lawsuit lies with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

Reyes’ spokeswoman Missy Larsen said Tuesday that the office welcomes any serious legal analysis of this significant issue. The office has previously said they had begun drafting a potential lawsuit, but that there’s no timeline for pursuing it and that they are waiting to see what progress the state’s congressional delegation can make on the issue.

David Garbett, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, called it a total waste of money to even consider a lawsuit that has zero chance of success.

“This all about trying to find somebody that has political ideology close to you, not about finding somebody that is going to give you a straight response,” Garbett said.

But in a presentation to the commission, Thomas Vaughn of the office of legislative research and general counsel, touted the upcoming paper as one that would become the preeminent brief in the country about state control of federal land. He highlighted that Ronald Rotunda and John W. Howard - who he called constitutional law experts -will do work on the brief.

The land demand does not include national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, with the exception of the roughly 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and its underground coal reserves.

In response to push back about the commission’ political bent on the issue from Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, Stratton said the state is intent on protecting lands to in Utah. Critics have argued cash-strapped states would be more likely to sell off public lands and close them to recreational activities.

“We need to recognize we have an $8 billion industry resting upon keeping our lands pristine and beautiful and desirable for the world to come and enjoy,” Stratton said. “I think we will find we agree on a lot more than we disagree on.”