Interim Day: Don’t call HB 148 a ‘land grab’ – Utah has every right to control its land

Photo: Scott Catron

Mid-November meetings of the Utah Legislature are traditionally the final regular monthly gatherings of interim committees prior to the full-time session that begins in January. The issues and proposals discussed foreshadow and prepare the way for the work legislators will engage in the forthcoming annual general session.

The report of the Constitutional Defense Council and the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office was among the more significant and high-profile matters at Wednesday’s Interim Day. The report was presented consistent with requirements included in Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study (HB 148, 2012), passed in the 2012 general session and signed by Governor Herbert.

Members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee and Education Interim Committee and interested members of the public in attendance were provided copies of Report on Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act – H.B.148 and Toward a Balanced Public Lands Policy: A Case Statement for the H.B. 148 – Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act.

Some news reports and commentary about the state’s commitment to gain rightful control of land within its borders continue to mischaracterize the objectives of Utah leaders in the effort.

The phrases “land grab,” “political stunt,” “Utah’s plan to wrest control of public lands within the state away from the federal government,” and the like are examples of what policy leaders and responsible citizens must challenge as erroneous and misleading descriptions of the intent and effect of the critically important HB 148. Many who invoke such invective do so with inflammatory intent, abetted by some in the media.

Irrespective of the source from which such obfuscation flows – simple ignorance, default assumptions, or motivated mendacity – policy and political leaders and citizens who are insisting that the federal government make good on the sacred contract detailed in the 1894 Utah Enabling Act must confront these mischaracterizations and effectively reframe the dialogue to address the actual issue: As a sovereign state, Utah can and should control and manage Utah’s lands.

With this clear, undistorted vision, Utahns see themselves as acting responsibly, necessarily and resolutely in their support of the objectives of HB 148. They – we – are not the uppity, selfish, fool’s-errand ingrates that the “this-land-belongs-to-all-of-us” opposition would denigrate and label as provincial, benighted bumpkins.

State sovereignty is not a charming but outdated cultural artifact. It is the foundation of the functional system of governance articulated in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the bulwark the Founders recognized as essential to the defense and preservation of freedom.

What Chief Justice John Roberts declared in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision [National Federation of Independent Business et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., 567 U.S. __ (2012), p. 49.] regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – surely among the most ironically and cynically titled pieces of legislation ever enacted by Congress – certainly applies to the state-lands issues impacting Utah and nearly all states in the West:

“…we look to the States to defend their prerogatives by adopting ‘the simple expedi­ent of not yielding’ to federal blandishments when they do not want to embrace the federal policies as their own. Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U. S. 447, 482 (1923). The States are separate and independent sovereigns. Some­times they have to act like it” [emphasis added].