After federal lands close, states push for turnover

Narij Chokshi / The Washington Post /

Published Oct 19, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — The shutdown may have ended, but not before refueling an old demand among some Western states: It’s time for the federal government to turn over some land.

Just more than half of the area covered by the nation’s 13 Western states is owned by the federal government.

And during the 16-day government shutdown, some of that land was inaccessible, frustrating officials in states such as Utah where local economies rely on those spaces and buttressing their arguments that they should have more say over how that land is administered.

“The closure and re-opening of Utah’s national parks offer a dramatic demonstration of the need to have greater state and local control over programs and services,” Utah Attorney General John Swallow and Assistant Attorney General Anthony Rampton wrote in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed this week. “(I)n these days of federal austerity, we assume substantial risk by relying too heavily upon the federal government.”

Nearly two-thirds of Utah — 66.5 percent — is federally owned, making it second only to Nevada’s 81 percent, according to federal agency data compiled for a 2010 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Swallow and Rampton’s complaint is hardly new. Last year, Utah passed a law demanding that the federal government hand over about 20 million of the 35 million acres it owns in that state by the end of next year.

And it’s also not unique to Utah.

“In the past year, legislatures in seven western states — Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho — have passed, introduced, or explored legislation demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal public lands to the states,” according to a March report from the liberal Center for American Progress.

But as Utah’s own legislative analysts wrote at the time, Supreme Court precedent and the Constitution suggest that the law would be unenforceable.

“(T)hat requirement, and any attempt by Utah in the future to enforce the requirement, have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional,” the state Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel noted in its review.

Utah’s law was first introduced by state Rep. Kevin Ivory, who is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative bogeyman to liberal groups that oppose it for its role in influencing and crafting state and local policy.

The Center for American Progress called such efforts a “losing battle that amounts to little more than political grandstanding,” and Utah’s own legislative analysts argued that the law’s demand interferes “with Congress’s power to dispose of public lands.”

But even if such policies can’t be enforced, the federal government shutdown offered lawmakers another opportunity to make their case.

“The last few weeks show Utah can and should have an enhanced role in its citizens’ affairs and in the uses of its land. The long-term public health, safety and economic welfare of Utahns depend on it,” Swallow and Rampton wrote in their op-ed.