Western states demand feds return public land amid clamor for more drilling

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Several Western states, fed up with a federal government some claim is locking down public land against oil drilling, are demanding Washington return millions of acres to state control.

The pleas mark a new front in the battle over states' rights, and one state has already codified its demand into law.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, signed a law several days ago that asks the federal government to return 20 million acres, which could be used to develop oil and other natural resources to bolster the state economy.

Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory said Tuesday the land is worth trillions of dollars in oil and mineral resources, which would be developed in a responsible way.

"The first thing you do is protect the national park, monuments and other open space," he told FoxNews.com. Then, he said, lawmakers would create a so-called "public lands commission" managed by the state -- that would hold sway over the natural resources buried in the rock.

Ivory pointed to North Dakota, where the recent development of oil and natural gas has resulted in a booming state economy, with one of the country's lowest unemployment rates.

A law similar to Utah's passed the Arizona Senate last month, and lawmakers in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico reportedly are preparing similar legislation for next year.

The Utah law also has backing from the state's GOP delegation on Capitol Hill.

"This issue is as much about state sovereignty as it is about state economy," U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a written statement. "Utah can manage its priorities ... much more efficiently than the federal government. But the state needs resources, and Washington is standing in the way."

Ivory and Herbert said the state hopes to reach a deal with the federal government by December 2014, and lawmakers then would pursue legal action that appears to have standing from a recent Supreme Court decision.

However, Bob Abbey, the director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, recently said Utah lawmakers' efforts are "divisive and unproductive."

"It's sad that they are spending so much time debating something that has absolutely no chance of ever happening in the real world," he told the Salt Lake City Tribune after a congressional hearing last month.

Beyond the arguments about states' rights and 116-year-old promises by Washington to return the land, Utah lawmakers said the state desperately needs the land to generate money to cover a $2 billion funding gap for public education -- without raising taxes.

Right now, Utah cannot levy state or local taxes on federal land to help support public education, and the state consistently ranks last in per-pupil federal funding.

Herbert said the only alternative would appear to be "ruinous tax increases."

"We don't agree with the effort," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Utah-based Save our Canyons. "It would be a huge disservice to turn national treasures over to the state for development purposes."

This is not the first time that states west of Colorado have joined in asking the federal government to give them more control of the land.

The so-called Sagebrush rebellion dates back in the 1970s and had the support of President Reagan in the 1980s.

"As a leader of the Sagebrush rebellion, I've been fighting to turn federal lands in our state over to Utahns to own and control," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a written statement.