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Lawmakers Hear from Critics of Federal Land Oversight

U.S. Bureau of Land Management

State lawmakers hosted a freewheeling discussion Wednesday on the impact of federal land ownership and policies on Utahns. But their hearing focused almost exclusively on criticizing the federal government.

For more than two years state lawmakers have had an eye on transferring the control of federal lands to Utah. On Wednesday, a House-Senate panel heard more than a dozen witnesses describe their frustrations with feds.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, has led the federal lands-transfer movement. He says the federal agencies were invited but Wednesday’s hearing was for Utahns.

“Well, let’s remember where we are, we’re in a public hearing for representatives of the people of the state of Utah, right? And so we’re hearing from our constituencies all around the state and hearing about the problems that are very, very tremendous in all aspects.”

Commissioners from Utah’s rural counties and state agency leaders joined the Utah Cattlemen’s Association and the Utah Farm Bureau in complaining about federal oversight. They criticized the Endangered Species Act, energy development restrictions, wild horse damage and what some are calling a U.S. Forest Service water grab. And they tallied the cost to Utah schoolchildren and communities in the billions of dollars.

Credit Taylor Hayes / KUER News
Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife (right), and Larry Crist, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, chat after Crist spoke to lawmakers at the State Capitol on Wednesday.

  A representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the only federal government official on hand Wednesday.

Maryann Martindale is director of Alliance for a Better Utah, a good-government organization that skipped the hearing, like most other advocacy groups.

“The public’s left out of it,” she says. “I mean, the public hears one side of it, and so they hear only what it is that these people who are supporters of taking over public land hear. And the public doesn’t have a real full understanding of, first of all, what the issue really is,  if it is really indeed legal and what the options are. There’s just no debate to it, and so the public’s left out of that.”

Lawmakers expect to hear recommendations on the lands-transfer idea in November. The Legislature demanded in a 2012 bill that the feds relinquish control of their Utah holdings by the end of the year.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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