- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah might not launch a $14 million lawsuit against the federal government for control of public lands, but if the state does sue, it might not happen until next year, a state lawmaker said Wednesday.

Rep. Keven Stratton said a lawsuit could wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the state will consider whether a new high court justice is likely to favor Utah conservatives’ argument that the state has a right to 31 million acres under federal control.

He said state officials also are waiting to see if Obama names a new national monument at the Bears Ears area in southeastern Utah, which Utah officials opposed and could trigger the lawsuit. Congress could eliminate the need for a lawsuit if it passes an alternative plan to protect Bears Ears, Stratton said.

“We’re trying to prepare for all options,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Utah’s Republican leaders have argued for years that federal control of more than 60 percent of the state robs Utah of potential revenue from property taxes, logging, mining and more.

Environmentalists and legal scholars say Utah has no claim to the lands, having given them up at statehood. They argue Utah would lose any potential lawsuit, something the Legislature’s attorneys warned in 2012.

Proponents of the lawsuit argue the state’s claim lies in the Utah Enabling Act, which led to Utah’s statehood. Supporters, mainly Republicans, contend the state would be a better manager, and local control would allow it to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres.

Stratton said Utah might not need to sue if Congress passes a broad land management plan that U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah is working on. The Republican congressman’s office said Wednesday it plans to release a new draft of that proposal in the next month or so, but it’s still unclear when it will be introduced in Congress.

Bishop’s plan would protect several million acres of public land, including part of the Bears Ears area, in in exchange for freeing up more than 1 million acres for recreation and oil and gas development. Utah’s governor and other state GOP officials say the proposal offers more flexibility than a national monument in the Bears Ears area, which would offer permanent protections.

Native American tribes and conservation groups say a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument is needed to protect the land from off-road vehicle damage and looting.

Obama has not said if he’ll make the area a monument, but his Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to visit the area this summer and discuss land protection proposals.

In the meantime, Stratton said a consulting firm hired by the Legislature has spent more than $900,000 laying the groundwork for a potential lawsuit and a public relations campaign to build support for the idea.

Stratton said any decision about a lawsuit ultimately rests with the attorney general.

Dan Burton, a spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, said the office is still weighing whether to file a lawsuit.


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