The Supreme Court decision that could rock Utah

Anasazi ruins that are over 700 years old are pictured in Mule Canyon in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on April 9, 2021. The federal government's ownership of land in Utah has created tension in certain parts of the state.

Anasazi ruins that are over 700 years old are pictured in Mule Canyon in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on April 9, 2021. The federal government's ownership of land in Utah has created tension in certain parts of the state. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The federal government owns the majority of land in Utah — around two-thirds of it. That land includes the state's national park gems noted for their acres of striking rock formations and vivid natural arches.

But the federal government also owns scores of desert lowlands and fields where animals can graze.

To say the federal government's ownership of land in Utah has created tension in certain parts of the state would be an understatement. Economies in Utah, especially in rural areas, depend on the use of land for agriculture, energy, oil, gas and mining — not tourism — for their communities to thrive. In some rural counties, only a small share of land isn't owned by the federal government. Federal agencies often impose regulations on this land for the stated purpose of conservation.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the sustainability of the oil and coal industries in particular, which has led to advocacy on their part to protect land from specific usages.

For some residents of the Beehive State, many of whom are blue-collar workers, these regulations have created personal and financial hardships.

"There's been almost no way for people to deal with bad rules that have been put into place," said Utah Rep. John Curtis in a phone interview. Curtis' congressional district stretches across southern and eastern Utah where public lands are plentiful.

Curtis and other leaders across the state have pointed toward two Supreme Court cases that didn't start in Utah, but could change the state: Relentless v. Department of Commerce and Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. These cases are better known as the ones that may overturn or limit Chevron deference.

The ruling could come any day now.

'Consistently bad for state authority'

June 25 will mark 40 years from when the Supreme Court decided the case that established the two-prong legal test known as Chevron deference. At its most basic level, the question underlying this legal test is when do the agencies get to decide how to interpret a law rather than the courts.

In cases where Congress has been ambiguous or silent on a specific question of law and also where an agency has put forward a reasonable or permissible interpretation of law, then the power to interpret is left to the agencies. If both conditions aren't met, then the court may interpret the law.

But conservative justices seem poised to walk back the precedent.

When Justice Neil Gorsuch was a circuit judge, he expressed concerns about Chevron in an opinion he authored.

"For whatever the agency may be doing under Chevron, the problem remains that courts are not fulfilling their duty to interpret the law and declare invalid agency actions inconsistent with those interpretations in the cases and controversies that come before them."

The House on Fire ruins are pictured in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on April 9, 2021.
The House on Fire ruins are pictured in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on April 9, 2021. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Utah's House congressional delegation along with Gov. Spencer Cox headlined an event earlier this spring ahead of the ruling.

"The principle of deferring to a federal agency's interpretation of a federal statute, as long as that interpretation is reasonable, has for the past 40 years empowered federal agencies to grow their missions and expand their power in ways that are consistently bad for state authority, bad for economic growth and bad for individual liberty and human flourishing," said Cox.

Curtis told the Deseret News that the issue hits Utahns close to home.

"I think people in Utah can really relate to problems with the federal government and federal lands," said Curtis. "And in essence, under the current situation, agencies like the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) have issued rules like the conservation rule that gives them unchecked authority to take large swaths of land and remove them from grazing, remove them from recreation, remove them from extraction and that impacts Utahns."

'A false narrative'

Those three areas — grazing, recreation and extraction — matter to many Utahns both personally and economically.

"There's no ability, no accountability for that, no ability to push back on a bad decision like there is if it's an elected official," said Curtis.

The frustration among Utah residents is real and palpable, said Curtis. He hears about it a lot and thinks it "fosters a really bad relationship between the federal government and the state."

Curtis explained another one of his frustrations with Chevron is that it gives agencies thousands of miles away the power to make decisions about Utah land instead of the people who actually live in the area.

East of the Mississippi River, the federal government only owns 4% of the land. But that's different in the West.

"I am confident that locally they understand better than in Washington how to preserve and protect these for future generations and at the same time make them available for the many uses that we like to use them for here in Utah," said Curtis.

While proponents of Chevron deference will often say it protects lands and keeps them available for conservation, Curtis called that "a false narrative" and a "deception technique."

"It's a false narrative to say somehow that somebody 2,000 miles away wants to protect them any more than somebody who lives on the land, who makes a living off the land, who wants to protect it for generations to come," said Curtis.

"I actually think that what the federal government does is they do an inferior job to people who actually live on the land," added Curtis.

Read the entire story at Deseret.com

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