Utah lawmakers approve $12M for land fight against feds

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is among the groups opposing an effort to get National Parks and other federal public lands in Utah under state control. Photo credit: National Park Service.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers approved more than $12 million in funding at this year’s session for their fight to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and extract natural resources from them.

Among other things, the funds will go toward lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and others involved in Utah’s demand for title to 31 million acres of public lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Republican legislators say the funding is necessary to protect state interests in the face of what they call federal overreach on issues such as grazing, mining and oil and gas leasing.

“We need to have additional people on the ground to analyze the data,” Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1FmbnHC ). “There is a lot of analysis (by federal scientists) that is not being done properly.”

Critics say GOP lawmakers are guilty of their own overreach at the expense of taxpayers and genuine progress on land management.

“It’s an us-versus-them mentality. It’s an under-seige mentality that wants to create and foster an adversarial relationship with the federal government,” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. “This is not a productive way to carry on a rational dialogue to solve these problems on the ground.”

Lawmakers directed $1 million to Utah’s Constitutional Defense Council to litigate a “states’ rights” lawsuit and another $1 million to the Attorney General’s Office for “multi-stage sage grouse litigation.” Legislators also assigned another $1 million to contracts — already worth $2 million — for crafting legal and public relations strategies for the public lands fight.

The Utah-based nonprofit Big Game Forever received $2.5 million to pressure federal officials to remove protection for the gray wolf and not to list the Greater sage grouse as an endangered species, while the state Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office will get nearly $5 million beyond its $2.3 million base budget mostly to finance Utah’s quest for title to 12,000 disputed roads.

Before the session ended this week, lawmakers also earmarked $1.5 million to help counties craft resource management plans by July 1, 2016. The public lands office would incorporate them into a single statewide plan showing the public how the state would manage public lands.

But conservationists say counties would not have nearly enough money or time to craft meaningful plans.

“What they will get is a 10-page plan that says ‘drill, baby, drill’ and ‘log, baby, log,'” said Tim Wagner, a Salt Lake City environmental activist. “They are not interested at all in responsible management of these lands. Their only interest is in extractive use. I wish they would quit blowing smoke and mirrors.”

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