- Associated Press - Monday, September 1, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah must be ready for a fight if it carries out a plan to sue the U.S. government for control of millions of acres of federal land, the state’s attorney general has warned lawmakers.

“When it comes to litigation, I think we have one shot,” Sean Reyes said recently at the first meeting of a state commission working on the push to manage about two-thirds of Utah’s land, which is owned by the federal government.

The move follows a Utah law passed in 2012 demanding the U.S. hand over the land by next year, claiming local officials would be better managers and the state would be better off financially.

The push excludes national parks, military installations and Native American reservations.

Critics of the effort say the federal government will not relinquish the land and any effort to wrest control will waste money because the state has no legal claim.

Reyes, the Republican attorney general, told the Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands on Wednesday that his office is reviewing the state’s options and a lawsuit is one path.

Utah could partner with other Western states to sue or appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said. A lawsuit could be part of a broader plan that also includes negotiations with Washington, D.C., Reyes said.

Tony Rampton, who oversees public lands litigation in Reyes’ office, said Utah needs to avoid mistakes made during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, an unsuccessful Western push for federal land in the 1970s and 1980s.

“They filed lawsuits based on theories that did not pan out. They took inconsistent positions,” Rampton said.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat on the commission, said he doesn’t think Utah has a strong legal claim. But he said that if the state sues, it should act soon so the issue can be settled, the Daily Herald reported.

Lawmakers set a Dec. 31 deadline for the land transfer, but Rep. Ken Ivory, a West Jordan Republican leading the push, said earlier this year that date is more of a goal.

Reyes told the Deseret News that it will be another six months to a year before the state is ready to sue.

The effort to hammer out a plan comes as Utah officials await the release of an extensive study looking at the outcomes of the state assuming control of the land.

The report, being drafted by three Utah universities, is expected before November.

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