- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - After years of debate over control of Utah’s public lands, one state lawmaker wants to settle the argument by giving the attorney general’s office a hard deadline to sue the federal government for control.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat, has said he doesn’t think Utah has a claim to the land, but the issue needs to be put to rest after years of dispute.

Organizations and officials on both sides have been able to “feed off” the ongoing debate and use it to stir up their supporters and raise money, Dabakis said.

“There’s kind of institutionalized slowness in not really solving this,” he said Monday. “It’s time it’s over. It’s time to get it solved. It’s time to move on with our state’s life.”

Utah passed a law in 2012 demanding that the federal government hand over control of more than 30 million acres of land by 2015. That deadline has quietly passed, but lawmakers have said they may force the issue in court.

Dabakis has introduced a bill that would have required Attorney General Sean Reyes to file a federal lawsuit by the end of this summer.

But Republican leaders on the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee said Monday afternoon that they’d support the bill if Dabakis pushed the deadline back a year to June 30, 2016.

Dabakis agreed to make the change. He plants to bring it back to the committee to vote on again soon. It must then go before the full Senate and Utah House for consideration.

Sen. Allen Christensen, a Republican from North Ogden, said he felt the bill would help resolve the issue with the federal government, which has thus far ignored Utah’s demand.

Utah’s officials argue the state would be a better manager, and local control would allow Utah to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres.

Much of the land Utah seeks is controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. National parks and monuments, military bases and wilderness areas are exempt from the demand.

Critics have argued Utah has no legal claim to the land, and the legislature’s own lawyers warned the state’s pursuit would likely be unconstitutional.

Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature has begun preparing for a possible lawsuit, but it has not laid out a timeline. Lawmakers set aside $2 million to prepare a legal fight for the state attorney general to pursue.

Parker Douglas, the federal solicitor in the Utah attorney general’s office, told The Associated Press in January that the office has started drafting a lawsuit but is waiting to see what progress the state’s congressional delegation can make on the issue before pushing the issue in court.

The office had no immediate comment on the legislation Monday.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose department is in charge of about 46 percent of Utah’s land, has said the debate about Utah taking over is a waste of time and resources.

If the U.S. Supreme Court or a federal court rules against Utah, Dabakis said, “then we sit down, roll up our sleeves and move on.”


Online: SB 105: https://1.usa.gov/1BWP2hb

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