SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah officials are spending about $550,000 on a detailed study of what would happen if the state took control of millions acres of public lands currently under federal control, according to an outline of costs provided to lawmakers on Wednesday.
Three Utah universities are working together on the study, which is scheduled to be released in November.
The study looks at current and possible revenues on public lands and what agencies and activities would be affected if the state took control, among other items.
Legislators requested the analysis last year in the wake of a 2012 law that demands the federal government transfer control of much of Utah’s public lands to the state before next year.
Utah’s Republican governor and legislators have argued local officials would be better managers of the land then the federal government, which owns about two-thirds of Utah’s land.
Kathleen Clark, the director of the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, said the pending study will provide the most detailed look yet at would happen if states took control of lands in federal hands.
Previous reports have compiled data such as where federal land managers get funds and how they spend them on activities like wildfire suppression.
Clark said the new study will include details such as a how communities would be affected if local jobs with federal agencies, such as Bureau of Land Management, were lost, and if comparable state jobs could replace those positions.
“There are lots of interesting questions and I think you will find that the depth and breadth to this study is going to lay a foundation, not for giving you decisions, but for giving you data, on which to make very well-informed decisions,” Clark told lawmakers on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment interim committee.
Legislators did not spend much time discussing the costs Wednesday, but Sen. Scott Jenkins, a Plain City Republican and co-chair of the committee, said the cost was “a good bargain” for all the 10,000-plus hours of work that the University of Utah, Utah State University and Weber State University are spending on the project.
One item the study does not appear to tackle is how the lands will actually be transferred to the state and what that might cost.
Rep. Ken Ivory, a West Jordan Republican who’s been leading the public lands push, said a newly formed legislative commission is expected to tackle those issues when they start meeting next month.
Ivory said he hopes the November report will hopefully provide more background for the argument and education people on the issue.
Utah’s law focuses on land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It exempts national parks, military installations, Native American reservations and congressionally approved wilderness areas.
Utah legislators and Gov. Gary Herbert have said that if the federal government ignores the deadline to hand over legislation, the state may file a lawsuit.
Critics have said the state has no standing to claim the lands and note that Utah passed similar legislation during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s.
Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Utah has approached the issue “entirely backward” by passing a law first and then starting “to crunch the numbers and see if it makes sense.”
Based on previous reports, Bloch said he doesn’t expect it will make financial sense to take over the lands.
But moreover, the federal government is never going to hand over those lands, he said, adding “They’re spending taxpayer money on what’s ultimately a pipe dream.”
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