Dabakis gets passage of 'big enchilada' lands bill

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mexican food, anyone?

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said it's time to serve up the "big enchilada" lawsuit to the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, asking them to settle the public lands ownership debate in Utah for good.

"It sends a message to everyone in the state that we want to get this thing resolved and get on with our life," Dabakis said, explaining SB105.

The bill was heard Wednesday before the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee and passed out favorably, 4-2, to advance for consideration by the full Senate.

Dabakis, who has been critical of the effort by Utah state leaders to "take back" control of Bureau of Land Management lands and U.S. Forest Service acreage, said his measure attempts to solve that ownership debate by getting a legal answer.

The bill directs the Utah Attorney General's Office to file a petition in the federal courts by June 30, 2016, demanding resolution to issue.

"It is to keep a squeeze on the attorney general, and on the state, and on our vision, so we have some endgame on this endless battle we have with the feds," Dabakis said, adding that he's taken some heat from people who think his bill is taking a position on the lands question.

"We are kind of planning to take over this land, and what this does is say we are serious about it," he said.

Utah has been leading a mostly Western states' charge against the federal government in a coalition that demands title be ceded to lands it contends were promised at statehood.

Much of the political unrest over federal land ownership stems from the thorny and contentious resource issues that have arisen over oil and gas leasing, constraints imposed by the Endangered Species Act, tension over grazing, and reductions in timber harvests.

Utah, like most of its neighbors west of the Mississippi, has the majority of the land within its border controlled by federal agencies such as the BLM or U.S. Forest Service.

In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act, demanding the federal government cede title or risk a lawsuit.

Utah has ponied up millions for a potential fight and has set up the Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands to determine how new acreage added to the stable of state management might be overseen.

In addition, the state has created a law dealing with wilderness designations in Utah and is preparing to solicit outside legal counsel to weigh the merits of its legal case.

Late last year, a study commission by the state's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office concluded that Utah could realize a profit by managing federal lands, but only if oil and gas prices remain at a certain level, and only if managed aggressively. Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com Twitter: amyjoi16

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