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Court Alternatives Considered In Lands-Transfer Fight

U.S. Bureau of Land Management
The controversial effort to transfer around 31 million acres of lands from federal to state hands got a boost from a $4.5 million appropriation last week. But supporters say they're also looking at other avenues of change.

State lawmakers added money to Utah’s budget last week for suing the federal government over public lands. The question is whether they’ll use it.

Utah leaders are determined to get the federal government to transfer to the state control of 31 million acres of public land. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert says it’s “wise and prudent” for lawmakers to budget $4.5 for the lawsuit. But he also points to other options, like Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative bill.

“Sometimes the litigation threat is leveraged to make us sit down around the table and negotiate and maybe legislate,” he says.

Lawmakers are also talking about alternative strategies to a suit that could eventually cost $14 million dollars. Sen. David Hinkins is an Emery County Republican whose district includes the heart of Utah coal country and two national parks. He’s also hopeful about the public lands initiative, since U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died and left the high court one vote shy of a conservative majority.

“One of the things we’re talking about now is to not go to the courts, especially with the loss of the court justice the way it’s set up right now,” he says. “We’re kind of in limbo right now. So, we’re looking at all avenues.”

Environmental groups have largely panned both approaches. Marc Thomas, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, says there’s a growing backlash towards a lands transfer in Utah and a retreat from the idea in other Western states.

“It’s just part of the state Legislature’s bizarro world view. In the end, the state’s just robbing Peter to pay for quixotic Paul.”

Lawmakers also finalized a bill last week that outlines how Utah would manage what are now federal lands if the state were to win the argument.

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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