- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Utah lawmakers met with Idaho legislators Monday, offering Idaho legal arguments they say could be used to gain control of about 30 million acres of federal land within the state that is mostly administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

“The current structure is failing,” Republican Rep. Keven Stratton or Orem, Utah, chair of a commission for the stewardship of public lands, told Idaho lawmakers. “We have to ask ourselves: Are we going to be ruled by fear or are we going to trust ourselves?”

The Utah contingent, which included an attorney, made its presentation before the House Resources and Conservation Committee and the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.

Republican Dell Raybould of Rexburg chairs the House committee. He said Idaho could do a better job of managing federal lands, particularly forest land, but said he didn’t expect any legislation to come from the informational meeting this Session.

The federal government controls more than 60 percent of the land in each of the two states. Utah leaders are weighing whether to sue the federal government for control of public lands. The lawsuit could cost up to $14 million.

George Wentz, an attorney with the New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group, gave a legal argument that states are supposed to be equal. But he said states with large federal holdings are at a disadvantage to states in the East and as a result aren’t being treated equally. He said that offers a legal lever for states such as Idaho and Utah to get control of federal land.

However, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has said the state’s constitution gave up claims to the land when Idaho joined the union. Other states entered the union in similar fashion.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, brought up that point in her questions, adding that she would rather Idaho not become similar to states in the East.

Wentz argued that the so-called disclaimer cited by Wasden is actually intended to facilitate the turning over of federal public land to states.

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said he sensed that most of his fellow lawmakers favored state control of federal public land, but he sensed the opposite among Idaho residents. He said more information was needed to inform Idaho residents about how state control would work.

Much of that fear, he said, centered on a potential loss of access to public land that is used by hunters, anglers and a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts in Idaho.

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said that if Idaho did move forward with trying to get control of federal public land, he’d want to make sure it stayed public.

“If we were to take control of the federal land within our borders, it would be my idea to amend the Constitution that it could never be sold off,” he said.

Finding a legal method for states to get control of federal lands is typically seen as a difficult longshot. Congress, however, has the authority to turn over federal land to the states. But efforts to pass such a law have failed so far.

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