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A Senate panel on Monday advanced a joint resolution that presses the Utah governor and congressional delegation "to exert their utmost abilities" to convince the federal government to hand over 30 million acres of public lands to the state.
SJR13 seeks to speed the implementation of last year's Transfer of Public Lands Act, which envisions the state acquiring most of the federal land within its borders by the end of next year. But even its backers concede this might take a legal battle, but one they say is worth fighting, especially if other Western states join the struggle to "take back" public lands.
"This action, if taken by the federal government, will allow Utah to provide for the education of its children, grow its economy and job opportunities, and provide for responsible management of the state's abundant natural resources while preserving the important historic and cultural contributions that Utah's public lands provide the citizens of Utah, the nation, and the world," the resolution claims.
The federal act that enabled Utah's statehood in 1896 "promised" public lands would be disposed of but the feds have reneged on the deal, according to sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, who addressed the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Monday. The panel passed the bill onto the full Senate on a 3-0 vote.
The panel's lone Democrat, Sen. Jim Dabakis, of Salt Lake City, volunteered to work with Osmond to reword his resolution to make it less confrontational and critical of the federal government.
"The approach we tried [with the Public Lands Transfer Act] and you are trying to reinforce isn't working. I wonder it it's time to put some of the arrows aside and go back to Washington with a new attitude," Dabakis said. "Let's see if we can roll up our sleeves and create some peace here."
For months, conservationists have been panning the proposed transfer as an unconstitutional land grab that would cost Utah taxpayers dearly, both in terms of litigation and administering the land itself. Their biggest concern is the land would be sold off, but backers say the intention is to keep the land public and do a better job managing it than the feds have done.
"This is something Utah has been asking for nicely for decades. It's time to demand. Other states are standing with us," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan,addressing another land-transfer bill on Friday.
Awaiting action on the House floor is HB142, which would authorize the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office to further study how best to accomplish the transfer. This effort will cost up to $450,000, according to a fiscal note.