Utah Governor Backs Lawsuit Over Federal Land Management

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By Tripp Baltz

March 11 — Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) said he supports efforts to mount a legal challenge seeking to allow the state to manage 30 million acres of federal lands within its boundaries.

Herbert told Bloomberg BNA March 10 in an interview the state is considering a lawsuit as part of a three-pronged strategy to resolve Utah's ongoing dispute with the federal government over the administration of Bureau of Land Management and other federal lands within the state.

“Negotiation, litigation, and legislation—we'll use all three,” Herbert said.

His comments came after the Utah Legislature set aside $4.5 million to fund a suit against the U.S. seeking to transfer control of federal public lands in Utah to the state. The Legislature, on the final day of its 2016 session March 10, also approved a resolution (H.C.R. 16) calling for a lawsuit to establish “state sovereignty and equal footing” leading to the state's obtaining control of federal public lands within Utah.

‘Critical Step.'

In his 2016 State of the State address Jan. 27, Herbert said he is an “enthusiastic supporter of the Public Lands Initiative of Congressman Rob Bishop, Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Senator Mike Lee.” The initiative is one of the “critical steps to help resolve this longstanding conflict and improve our self reliance,” he said.

Utah officials have expressed a desire to assert control over public lands—including BLM and other lands currently managed by the federal government—within the state. Part of the conflict over public lands management stems from Utah's displeasure with apparent unilateral decisions by federal government agencies to grant wilderness designation to areas previously under multiple-use designation, resulting in the end of or reduction in industrial, recreational and other uses.

Democrats in the Legislature, environmental groups and other opponents of the lawsuit point to estimates the case could cost the state as much as $14 million.

Need to Be ‘Strategic.'

“We would need to be very strategic with a lawsuit” attempting to assert state control, Herbert told Bloomberg BNA. “The threat of litigation may be leverage to get a federal bill.”

Herbert said he prefers to see Congress act on the Public Lands Initiative sponsored by members of the state's delegation. “Things need to happen in a certain order,” he said. “There's some potential for a win-win here.”

The resolution passed by the Legislature “strongly encourages” appropriate executive branch agencies to pursue all legislative and legal efforts “to secure the transfer and control of public lands within” the state to Utah's control under the 2012 Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act. Should those efforts fail, the resolution said, the Legislature and the governor should file an original action in the Supreme Court, the jurisdiction for conflicts between a state and the federal government, no later than Dec. 1, 2017.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The resolution encouraging efforts to transfer federal public lands to Utah is available at http://le.utah.gov/~2016/bills/static/HCR016.html.