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Utah House Backs Lawsuit to Take Control of Federal Lands

Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is one of more than a dozen national parks, monuments and public lands in the state. (National Park Service)
Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is one of more than a dozen national parks, monuments and public lands in the state. (National Park Service)
March 9, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY - Members of the Utah House have approved a resolution calling for the attorney general to file a lawsuit claiming ownership of all federal lands within the state's borders.

The measure, approved on a 60-15 vote, would authorize $14 million of taxpayer money to take such a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. Brian O'Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said he believes the whole idea will get nowhere in the courts.

"The Constitution is clear that federal lands and national public lands belong to all Americans," he said, "and the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution makes it clear that for the state to try to sue and take these over is unconstitutional."

The resolution, introduced by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, is based on a legal analysis by the state Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands that Utah does have a legal case for ownership of the federal acreage.

Legal arguments aside, O'Donnell said, Utah doesn't have the resources to manage the tens of millions of acres of land, and that could force the state to sell to private interests that might block public access to the parks.

"I think if you talk to any legal scholar or do any research about this, you'd recognize that this is a nonstarter in the federal courts," he said. "I think this is totally grandstanding and it's a waste of time and a waste of money."

The state already has commissioned a private law firm to draw up a draft of a complaint in the case that could be used by the attorney general. The resolution now moves on to the state Senate for consideration.

The text of the resolution, HCR 16, is online at le.utah.gov.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT