Capitol Daily Memo: “backwater” – Utah public lands bill or “extreme” environmentalism?

Today, a legislative committee received an update on the state’s progress in implementing H.B. 148, a bill passed this year with the goal of giving Utah greater access to its public lands in order to maintain state autonomy and increase funding for Utah schools.

As part of debate in the meeting, Vince Rampton, Democratic candidate for Utah lieutenant governor, argued that the Legislature’s efforts to take back public lands represent a “backwater” approach. According to Rampton, the state needs to use a “constructive” approach by engaging in a true partnership with the federal government rather than “drawing lines.”

Reps. Mike Noel (R-Kanab) and Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) took exception to Rampton’s comments. Noel replied by saying the true “backwater” approach is that of the federal government and environmentalists who place the well being of owls and beetles above the well being of people. According to Noel, these parties are the “extremists” because they allow public lands to go untended, resulting in wildfires and other harm to citizens and communities. 

H.B. 148, now state law, requires the federal government to hand over public lands it was supposed to relinquish to the state after its admission to the union in 1896. If the federal government fails to transfer title of those lands to the state by the end of 2014, then the state will take legal action to enforce its request.

Kathleen Clark, coordinator of the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, reviewed the issues the state needs to address in order to implement the new law. For example, what specific course of action should the state take if the federal government fails to act? What legal theories and arguments will the state use to defend the law in court, if necessary? And if and when the state does obtain more of its public land, what should it do to protect public safety and create or maintain opportunities for energy development and recreation on public lands?

Clark said the coordinating office is assembling the best legal minds in the state to discuss how to frame arguments to support the law. Also, organizations such as the Congressional Western Caucus and ALEC are taking steps to support Utah’s initiative on public lands. By November, the committee expects to review potential legislation designed to address further steps to implement the law.

According to Rep. Ivory, with this initiative the state is not doing anything other states have not done in the past; Utah just wants the same opportunity other states have to access its public lands. Rep. Roger Barrus (R-Centerville) added that the state’s goal is to reap the greatest benefit possible from public lands for children in Utah schools and Utahns as a whole. Barrus predicted the state will find success in its efforts, saying “We’ve got a victory ahead in the future.”

You can learn more about H.B. 148 by watching the following video report: