Western lawmakers are stoking the flames of another Sagebrush Rebellion by moving to gain control of the federal lands within the states’ borders.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign a package of bills and resolutions that call for the federal government to transfer millions of acres of public territory to the state. Similar legislation has been introduced in Arizona, and legislators in other Western states are considering their own proposals.
The movement has prompted eye-rolling by some Democrats and legal experts who see the effort as a doomed outburst rooted in a faulty reading of the Constitution. But for Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the House bill passed last week, the proposals represent a long-overdue chance for the federal government to live up to its statehood agreement.
“This isn’t just a chest-thumping exercise,” Mr. Ivory said. “It’s a serious issue throughout the Western states.”
Westerners have long chafed at the disparity between the federal government’s land holdings in the East and the West. In Utah, the federal government controls about 65 percent of the land. Add tribal lands and military installations, and less than one-third of the state is available to contribute to the tax base.
The state already struggles with the lowest education funding in the nation, even though 52 percent of the budget now goes toward K-12 per-pupil spending. Utah currently lags $2.2 billion behind the national average in K-12 funding, Mr. Ivory said.
At the same time, federal compensation for its land holdings is expected to decline. Last year, $5.2 billion of Utah’s $13 billion budget was based on federal funds.
“We are barely able to keep our head above water in terms of funding public education,” said Ally Isom, the governor’s spokeswoman. “So it’s precipitated a renewed interest in public-lands policy.”
The Utah bill, which passed the Senate on Wednesday, establishes a timetable for a federal transfer of lands to the state, with December 2014 as the deadline. Excluded from the transfer would be national monuments, national parks and congressionally designated wilderness areas.
Environmentalists have come out in opposition to the idea, arguing that the states have more incentive to develop the land than preserve it. The proposals have the support of some education groups, including the Utah Parent-Teacher Association, but the teachers union is withholding its endorsement.
“We certainly have concerns with this particular approach, what with the potential cost involved with lawsuits and the likelihood that anything will come out of it is extremely low,” Utah Education Association spokesman Mike Kelley said.
The Utah legislative attorney has said that the effort is likely to run afoul of the courts, noting that the Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that only Congress may dispose of federal lands. A previous state-led movement to wrest control of public lands failed in the 1970s.
“This mirage is represented not only as a stand for states’ rights but also as a painless way to raise billions in taxes to support Utah’s overcrowded and underfunded schools,” said the Salt Lake Tribune in a Feb. 23 editorial. “Chance of success: Absolutely zero. Chance of motivating the far-right base of the Republican Party … : Appallingly high.”
The movement’s advocates argue that the federal government has failed to honor the agreement made at statehood in 1896. They note that the first 38 states have an average of only 4 percent federal ownership, but the federal government’s shift toward a conservation agenda in the early 20th century prevented most Western states from claiming their lands from the federal government.
Now states like North Dakota, which has only 3 percent federal lands, are enjoying an economic boom as a result of energy development on private and state property. Meanwhile, the Western states with similarly abundant resources are constrained by myriad federal regulations and public-lands lawsuits, critics say.
“Now we find ourselves today with 116 years of government entanglements and burdensome regulation on the public lands in Utah,” said state Rep. Roger Barrus, who supports the bills.
Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the department has no comment on the Utah bills. If the government refuses to turn over the lands by 2014, the Utah attorney general would be authorized to spend $3 million to launch a court battle.
With potentially billions in untapped tax revenue at stake, however, Utah lawmakers are willing to take a few risks. They’re also trying to build support. Mr. Herbert is planning to host a Rocky Mountain Roundtable of Western lawmakers in May to discuss the idea.
“All the states are watching Utah to see what happens, and he’s hoping we can lock arms and present a united front,” Ms. Isom said.