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Utah lawmakers started taking applications Monday from firms interested in tapping a $2 million war chest for the state's fight over public lands.
The Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands released a 26-page request for proposals, or RFP, seeking outside lawyers for two separate contracts one for legal consulting services and the other for "relation services," including lobbying.
Lawmakers and the governor have set aside $2 million to launch the legal fight. And legislators are contemplating adding another $1 million to the fund during the 2015 Legislature.
"You have to plant your tree and wait two or three years before you get your first good peach. You have to nurture it along," said commission co-chairman Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem.
Stratton is pushing his colleagues to add more money to get expert legal advice and galvanize support outside Utah.
In the three years since Utah enacted the Transfer of Public Lands Act, no other Western state has traipsed into the states rights fight. Meanwhile, Utah's deadline for the federal government to hand over the land has passed.
At the same time, lawmakers have not spelled out how the state would manage lands currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
A Utah County grower, Stratton is fond of orchard analogies when talking about laying the groundwork for the public land transfer, which he sees as a multi-year process.
"We are not trying to take back the land. You can't take back something that was never yours," Stratton said. "It's an issue of appropriately and in a timely way transferring the control of the public lands to what's going to be the best for the state and the people here and for the country."
Under the state contracts offered up this week, the money will not be used to actually litigate the issue, but to help determine the most effective legal arguments and identify legal counsel and expert witnesses to take these arguments to court.
The contract for legal services requires the contractor to make recommendations and submit "a legal brief on legal strategies (taking into account cost and other factors) that the State of Utah may use to obtain ownership and control of public lands."
The non-legal component of the RPF is geared toward developing public relations campaigns to build political support for land transfer and forging coalitions with other Western states.
Both two-year contracts will be awarded June 19.
Conservationists across the West denounce public land transfer as an unconstitutional "seizure" and "land grab" intended to open up vast landscapes to extractive industries and motorized access without regard to natural values.
But proponents say their goal is to allow the states to restore the land and rural economies they allege have been damaged by failed federal policies.
One public lands commission member, Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis, a staunch transfer opponent, has lost patience with the debate and is urging his colleagues to press on with a lawsuit, preferably as a petition for original jurisdiction before the nation's highest court.
"Let's get the big enchilada case before the Supreme Court. Let's stop piddling around with this. Let's get a decision and move on with our life," Dabakis said Monday on the Senate floor. "For once and all, come down and say these lands belong to Utah or they could say, 'Utah, dream on. You're not going to get it.' We are going to be able to end this eternal lawsuit."
Dabakis was arguing in support of his own bill, SB105, which would direct the attorney general to file suit by June 30, 2016.
In a vote of 20 to 8, the bill cleared its second reading Monday, with urban conservative lawmakers voting against it and rural conservatives joining Democrats in support. The bill was amended to encourage the public lands commission to make a recommendation about whether or not to file the suit.
While Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has acknowledged a Supreme Court petition can lead to a expeditious resolution, it might not be the resolution the state wants. Meeting with the public lands commission last August, Reyes and his associates cautioned against rushing into a legal entanglement with the feds.
"When it comes to litigation, we have one shot. If we take it and miss, that could curtail, inhibit or, in some cases, grind to a halt other efforts being done," he said.
Reyes said drafting a complaint is the easy part, likening a lawsuit to a loaded firearm that can result in great harm if not handled properly.
Assistant Attorney General Tony Rampton also advised against chasing legal arguments that failed during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and early 1980s.
"They did a lot of things we want to avoid now," he said. "They filed lawsuits based on theories that didn't pan out. They proceeded individually sometimes, taking inconsistent positions.
"There were constituencies that should have been supportive of what the states were trying to do, but came out opposing," Rampton added. "The groundwork wasn't done to bring these people around so they would see how they would benefit."