Stewardship Commission meets for first time, discusses taking federal lands

Posted at 7:23 PM, Aug 27, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-28 11:36:23-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- It's almost like they knew what was about to happen: When Representative Keven Stratton and Senator David Hinkins sponsored HB 151 creating Utah's Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands, they didn't know a rancher in Nevada would force a standoff with federal agents in April.

But that's what Cliven Bundy did in April.

They didn't know an elected Commissioner in San Juan County would organize an ATV ride in lands the BLM had made off-limits to off-road vehicles.

But that's what Philip Lyman did in May.

And they didn't know a county in Utah would pass a resolution declaring federal law invalid if it interfered with the functioning of the local government.

But that's what Iron County Commissioners did in June.

So when Stratton and Hinkins co-chaired the Commission's first meeting, they were riding a wave of Western discontent, and they seemed content to let the other members of their commission do the steering.

"We've only been 118 years a state now, and nothing's been done," said Commission member Mel Brown, a Republican from Coalville.

The eight-member commission only has two Democrats, Senator Jim Dabakis and Representative Joel Briscoe of Salt Lake City.

Dabakis said he was on board with one of the commission's goals.

"We should get this issue of jurisdiction settled," Dabakis said, saying an expedited lawsuit would be a good idea.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a Republican, testified to the commission. Reyes said he thinks it's a possibility the case could go directly to the Supreme Court.

At issue: conservatives say the enabling clause that allowed Utah to enter the union was identical to the enabling clause of other states: it said the federal government could dispose of public lands.

Before states west of the Rocky Mountains entered the union, the federal government exercised that clause by selling or granting most lands under it's control.

But that changed with Utah and several other western states.

"Congress changed a contract with the state of Utah and the federal government and they cannot do that. We are sovereign," said Representative Mike Noel, a Republican from Kanab.

Noel said counties in rural Utah suffer the lack of tax revenue because they only receive property taxes from a sliver of their land mass.

But Briscoe said there are economic as well as aesthetic reasons for those lands to be protected federally.

"There are people whose livelihoods are generated in Utah on recreation. On the fact that there are wide open spaces that are relatively untrammeled," Briscoe said.