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Utah is assembling a team of legal experts to plan its potential court battle for control of federal lands in the state, the governor's top public lands adviser told lawmakers Wednesday.
The Herbert administration is assembling a round table of the "best and brightest" to discuss legal strategy and will seek to get other states on board with similar efforts, Public Lands Policy Coordination Office Director Kathleen Clarke told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
The result could be an effort to sway Congress to cede lands before a court battle, and Clarke said some of the state's team will travel to Washington next week to address the Congressional Western Caucus.
"Ultimately," she said, "we may find that, rather than a legal solution, we will be seeking a political solution."
The Legislature previously passed HB148, directing the federal government to hand over most lands, excluding national parks, by the end of 2014 or face a lawsuit.
It also appropriated $3 million for the court battle, though Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said Wednesday that money is meant for all state-sovereignty battles, including a current lawsuit to control thousands of disputed roads across federal lands.
Lawmakers lamented federal management they say has closed off resource development and ruined forests by stifling logging something they argue has enabled overgrown forests that can't defend against a bark beetle infestation.
Forest Service scientists have said that fire suppression and climate change, among other factors, made the trees susceptible to beetles. And Utah Environmental Congress Program Director Kevin Mueller said groups such as his still have to fight overzealous timber sales, often unsuccessfully.
"They [lawmakers] give environmentalists too much credit," he said.
Vince Rampton, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, told the committee that the state would be wise to seek a political solution to management disagreements.
Utah's ultimatum, he said, likely violates both the U.S. Constitution's supremacy clause and the state Constitution's eminent-domain powers.
Committee members disagreed and said it's worth a shot at claiming equal footing with states not burdened with much federal ownership.
"We'll certainly lose if we do nothing," Ivory said.