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Washington • Two Utah congressmen are launching a "Federal Land Action Group" to identify ways Congress could push a transfer of federal lands to state and local governments.
GOP Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop announced the new working group on Tuesday and said that it would hold a series of forums with experts on public lands policy with the end goal of introducing legislation to move the federal lands into state and local control.
"The federal government has been a lousy landlord for Western states and we simply think the states can do it better," said Stewart, who will be chairman of the new GOP group. "If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control."
The Utah Legislature passed legislation in 2013 that demanded the federal government turn over 31 million acres of public land in Utah to the state by the end of 2014, and is now weighing a lawsuit to seek the action. The Legislature, which ponied up $2 million toward such a suit, is targeting lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service but excludes national parks and monuments, although the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is included.
The idea of the Federal Land Action Group brought an immediate rebuke from the environmental community, which has been working with Bishop's office toward his Public Lands Initiative that ideally would bring all sides of the debate to the table to hammer out what areas to set aside for protection and what areas could be used for development or oil and gas drilling.
"Our nation's remarkable public lands belong to all Americans. They are our heritage and birthright," said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It's unfortunate that Representatives Bishop and Stewart would promote such a wrongheaded and repudiated version of American history. Mr. Bishop's time would be better spent working with stakeholders on the Public Lands Initiative rather than poisoning the well with this outrageous land grab."
Bishop's office says there's no conflict with the initiative and the action group and it's a parallel effort to achieve results.
Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the group will look at the legal and historical background to determine what action is needed to "return these lands back to the rightful owners."
"We have assembled a strong team of lawmakers, and I look forward to formulating a plan that reminds the federal government it should leave the job of land management to those who know best," Bishop said in a statement.
The action group will include Republican House members only from three big federal-land states Utah, Nevada and Wyoming and two with little federal land. More than 80 percent of Nevada is federally owned, two-thirds of Utah's land mass and 48 percent of Wyoming, according to the Congressional Research Service. Tennessee and South Carolina are less than 5 percent federal lands.