Gov. Herbert signs public lands transfer act

A large crowd gathered for the signing of HB 148. | Photo courtesy of the Utah Governor's Office.

SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert signed a legislative bill on Friday that demands the federal government transfer management of public lands to state control.

Gov. Herbert signed HR 148, the “Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study” bill and HJR 3, a joint-house resolution also calling for a transfer of public lands management to the state, at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.

At the signing, the governor tweeted that a “huge crowd” had gathered, which spoke to “the importance of this bill.”

Language in HB 148 demands that the federal government “extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to the state on or before Dec. 31, 2014.”

Once transferred, the state would retain five percent of whatever revenue is garnered from the public lands, with 95 percent of the overall revenue going back to the federal government. The five percent that remains in the state is slated to be put into the State School Fund.

While pre-existing national parks, many national monuments, Native American reservations, and recognized wilderness areas will remain under federal control, particular areas, most notably the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, would  be given over to state control under the new bill.

Supporters of the bill have accused the federal government of constrictive policies and regulations concerning public land management in the past. HB 148 is seen as a way to break a perceived federal stranglehold on those lands.

Currently, nearly 70 percent of Utah’s public lands are overseen and managed by the federal government.

“This is only the first step in a long process, but it is a step we must take,” Herbert said. “Federal control of our public lands puts Utah at a distinct disadvantage, specifically with regard to education funding. State and local property taxes cannot be levied on federal lands, and royalties and severance taxes are curtailed due to federal land use restrictions.  Federal control hampers our ability to adequately fund our public education system.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee also expressed their support of HB 148.

“Signing this bill into law is a vital step in our united efforts to return the land back to the State of Utah where it rightfully belongs, Bishop said. “Maintaining the status quo, with the federal government owning nearly 70 percent of the state, will continue to hurt education funding. Children in Utah’s public school system deserve every educational opportunity afforded to those who come from states with few federal lands.”

Hatch gave his support for the bill, and cited the part he haa played in fighting for state rights concerning public lands in the past.

“Utahns can better manage the lands in our state far better than any bureaucrat in Washington ever could,” Hatch said. “As a leader in the Sagebrush Rebellion, I’ve been fighting to turn federal lands in our state over to Utahns to own and control.  I believe we are in a climate where, if we do it right, the lands in Utah can finally be under the management of our state, and I applaud the Legislature, Governor Herbert, and other parties in our state for sending this message.”

Lee also voiced his opinion on the new legislation.

“This issue is as much about state sovereignty as it is about our state economy,” said Senator Mike Lee. “Utah can manage its priorities – like education, public safety, and health care – much more efficiently than the federal government. But the state needs resources to be effective and Washington is standing in the way.  Utahns deserve the opportunity to use the land how they see fit to improve the state economy, the education system, and our communities.”

In a teleconference with members of the Utah press on March 14, Lee said “In time [HB 148] could prove to be one of the most significant things the Utah Legislature has done.”

Opponents to the public lands transfer are not happy with Gov. Herbert’s decision to sign the bill. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance decried the bill as being “unconstitutional” and “bad public policy” in a statement addressing their concerns.

According to the SUWA statement, “The Legislature’s own legal counsel declared that the required land disposal of this bill has a ‘high probability of being declared unconstitutional.’”

The statement continues: “The public lands that the Legislature demands be given to the state of Utah are places that Utahns and all Americans have loved and enjoyed for decades.  They include the Wasatch National Forest, our national wildlife refuges, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and thousands of other beloved locations throughout the state.”

It is expected that challenges to HB 148 will lead to federal court.

[email protected]

twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright 2012 St. George News

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