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Legislators took a first step Friday to outline how Utah would manage 31 million acres of federal public lands if the state were able to gain control of it.
The House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee voted 9-1 to approve HB276 and sent it to the full House.
Its sponsor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said it would provide a framework for state priorities for managing that land and what agencies would oversee it. Legislators are considering spending $14 million on a lawsuit to seek control of most federal lands in the state, which they contend Utah was promised at statehood.
"It will be managed for multiple uses and sustained yield," in sort of an "all of the above" approach for ranching, mining, grazing and wilderness, Noel said.
He added that his bill "is an overview. It's a policy statement. It talks about fees, it talks about income, but it's a work in progress. There is a process to go through we will defer to the greatest extent possible to local plans, to state plans to make sure we manage these lands in concert with the people that live there."
The bill calls for promoting grazing, wildlife development, mineral production, rights of way, outdoor recreation, timber production and wilderness conservation.
Noel promised that protecting wilderness would not be ignored.
"I consider the public lands as a sacred area for people to visit," he said. "It is a place where you can get closer to your god," he said. "You don't go in and destroy those things."
He said the bill also would make it difficult to sell off lands and said he wants the vast majority, if not all of them, to be retained in public ownership for the benefit of all. He said the state simply could manage them better than federal officials.
Noel acknowledge a preliminary version of the 2012 land transfer law envisioned selling lands.
"In my mind that was not a good thing. There are individuals in this country with the ability to buy large tracts of land and lock those lands up so no one can use them. What makes our state a wonderful state is the combination of private lands and the public lands," Noel said. "These lands belong to everybody in the United States. They can come and visit and see these lands, but in reality these are our lands in the state of Utah. They are sovereign lands for the state of Utah and we should be able to manage those."
An amendment to the bill would create an 11-member public land management advisory board, with representation from various interests, including outdoor recreation, wildlife management, mineral development, agriculture, rural transportation and county commissions. Environmental groups get one seat.
The committee last week endorsed a sister bill, HB287, which would set up two accounts that would receive private donations and state appropriations used for litigating the state's land claims against the federal government.
Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau, testified that ranchers now face much uncertainty with federal management of public lands and how much grazing may be allowed from year to year. "State and local control of these lands is what we need" to bring more certainty, he said.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said developing a plan to manage the lands is wise to show why Utah wants to oversee them. "It should be looked at as a very positive, forward-thinking move."
Noel said some people think the land transfer "is never going to happen. Many of us on this committee, if not all of us, believe there's a very good possibility it could happen."
He bill would take effect when and if Utah receives 100,000 acres of federal public lands.