SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - As the legislative session approaches its final stretch, bills are winding through the Utah Capitol that take a deeper dive into the public lands dispute and carve out new declarations where state lawmakers say federal authorities have overreached.
State legislators renewing last year's battle over control of the state's public lands say Utah's sovereignty and economic prosperity are on the line. Critics, however, say the fight is an unconstitutional waste of money.
Last year, Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation that gives the federal government until 2014 to relinquish control of nearly 4,700 square miles of public lands in Utah. The Utah Legislature authorized a lawsuit if the federal government doesn't comply.
Republican lawmakers and Herbert contend that the state would be a better manager of those spaces and federal control puts a stranglehold on Utah's economy with restrictions on developing and mining on those spaces.
This year, legislators have introduced a bill that commissions a study to inventory Utah's public lands and the weigh the cost and feasibility of the fight. One study was conducted last year, but lawmakers say a more detailed study needs to be done.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Roger E. Barrus, R-Centerville, calls for a review that would cost $450,000 and would likely take a few years to be completed.
The proposal is working its way through the Senate. If it's approved by the full chamber, the bill advances to the governor for a signature or veto.
Democrats support the study because they say the public lands demand is unconstitutional and say the study will show how the fight isn't worth Utah's time and money.
"This will all be seen as a waste and in the meantime our school kids, who need more than anything, funding for their public and higher education, will continue to be neglected," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, during a debate Wednesday.
Barrus responded by saying the public lands fight is not a waste but "a good policy in determining the future of our state and public lands."
Rep. Merrill F. Nelson, R-Grantsville, said he supports the effort to reclaim public lands in the state, but said he's not sure he'll support a lawsuit demanding control because he doesn't see "any legal basis for Utah to demand the federal government to give us this land."
The study could help the state make its case to the federal government that it could manage those lands better, Nelson said.
Nelson has also raised concerns about another bill this session that attempts to bar certain federal officers from enforcing local laws, such as a traffic violation.
The proposal, from Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, bars law enforcement officers with the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service from attempting to enforce local laws except in the case of an emergency. Officers that attempt to enforce state or local laws would be charged with a misdemeanor count of impersonating a peace officer.
During a committee hearing Thursday, the Noel and several county sheriffs recounted stories about officials with the Bureau of Land Management pulling people over for speeding or other infractions on public lands.
"It's an assault on the sovereignty of the state of Utah," said Sheriff Lamont Smith of Kane County in southern Utah.
Those federal officers are encroaching on local jurisdiction and said in many cases, those officers don't have the training to enforce those laws, said Mark Ward, an attorney with the Utah Association of Counties who helped to draft the bill.
"It's a statement that Utah does not recognize their exercise of law enforcement authority to enforce those laws," he said.
Nelson said the bill is an overreach because the state cannot attempt to regulate federal officials.
"You're creating an explosive situation here where we're going to have county sheriffs attempting to arrest federal law enforcement officers who are doing what they perceive to be their duty," he said.
A House committee voted 9-3 to approve the measure Thursday. It's now awaiting debate by the full House.
Besides those two bills, lawmakers have also introduced a resolution declaring Utah waterways on public lands solely under the jurisdiction of the state. The resolution also calls on state and local governments to defend Utah's water rights.
The resolution was introduced by Rep. Ken Ivory, a West Jordan Republican who sponsored last year's public lands bill.
Another resolution accuses federal agencies of mismanaging public lands to a point that public safety is now at risk. The resolution, from Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, states that overgrown forests are ripe for massive wildfires and federal restrictions block firefighting efforts.
Both measures are pending in the House in an early stage the legislative process.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has also introduced a resolution urging Utah's governor, congressional delegation and citizens to support the public lands law passed last year.
Those resolutions, along with the other pushback legislation, will have to advance fairly quickly to make it to governor's desk by the time the legislative session ends on March 14.
Despite the criticism from Democrats, conservationists and others, Utah lawmakers say they will not back down from their fight to control the land within state borders. Utah will eventually file a lawsuit against the federal government to press the case, Noel told fellow House representatives Wednesday.
"They are not going to give up these lands without a fight," he said.
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