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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Angry protesters packed a hearing and Utah lawmakers exchanged testy barbs over control of public lands on Wednesday amid renewed speculation that the federal government could create a new national monument in the state.
Republican lawmakers are fiercely opposed to the idea of President Barack Obama setting aside 1.9 million acres to create a new national monument around the Bears Ears formation, and the long-rumored concept gained new urgency Tuesday when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she plans to visit Utah.
Protesters who want the land protected packed a public lands committee hearing at the Utah Capitol building. American Indian tribes and conservation groups say the land is under constant threat from off-road vehicles and looting.
But others say that setting aside the land in southeastern Utah will hurt the local economy and keep American Indian elders from going there for cultural reasons.
"I'm here to tell you that a national monument will be devastating for my grassroots Navajo people," said Rebecca Benally, a county commissioner in southern Utah.
The possible monument is one touchpoint in the debate over federally managed public lands that account for a majority of Utah and the West. Tensions over public land have grown increasingly heated in recent years with armed standoffs in Nevada and Oregon. While leaders in Utah shun those tactics, state lawmakers say the state can do a better job managing the land and have pushed for a legal way to take control of the 30 million acres of federal land that makes up more than half the state.
Utah lawmakers are exploring the possibility of suing the federal government and commissioned a report on the idea. The law firm they hired recommended that the state take on the case, even though the lawyers said winning wasn't a sure thing.
Democratic and environmental groups are critical of the potential lawsuit, and two lawmakers are pushing for more information. They say they've only seen the parts of the report that are in favor of a lawsuit, and they want more information about possible downsides.
"It's the public's money and we have a right to know all the information," said an impassioned Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis of Salt Lake City.
But Republican lawmakers said the report has only been seen by the two chairmen of the state's public lands committee. They said releasing the information to more people could tank the case before it begins by breaking the bonds of attorney-client privilege and revealing their legal strategy. The committee defeated a proposal to share the full report with Dabakis and Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe, also from Salt Lake City.
"To just hand them our playbook before the game even starts is ridiculous," said Republican Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab. The commission's chairman banged his gavel as lawmakers on both sides of the issue traded barbs. Noel accused the Democrats of trying to derail the lawsuit, and called the dozens of protesters who packed the room selfish. Several vocally disagreed.
In a statement later Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert called it "absolutely irresponsible" for President Barack Obama's administration to consider declaring the monument without hearing from Utah residents.