Utah’s latest Sagebrush Rebellion

The latest attempt by Utah Republicans to assert local control over federal lands in their state is doomed to failure. The federal judiciary is not going to uphold a state law that ostensibly gives Utah counties the authority to condemn federal lands so local communities can use them as they see fit.

There is the little matter of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says the Constitution and federal laws “shall be the supreme law of the land.” Similar efforts in other states have been quickly dismissed by federal judges.

Even so, the legislation that passed the Utah House on Monday is a reflection of the frustration that many state and local officials experience in states that are dominated by public lands. In that regard, the bill is a direct descendant of the Sagebrush Rebellion movement of the 1980s and 1990s that was prevalent in Utah, Nevada, parts of New Mexico and Colorado.

That frustration over public lands management is understandable, especially in places like western Colorado.

For one thing, the policy direction of public lands management is apparently on a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other with each change in the White House and Congress. And, as the political chasm in Washington has widened, so has the distance the pendulum swings each time.

Federal land managers working on the ground are trapped by those policy swings.

So are businesses that rely on public lands — from energy firms to ranchers who graze cattle and sheep to foresters to recreational companies that take tourists to those lands. They would no doubt like some consistency so they can construct business plans for the next decade and more.

That’s also true for local governments that depend on direct public-lands revenue from things like federal leasing money, and indirect revenue from taxes paid by those businesses that operate on public lands. It’s why Mesa and Garfield counties have been so adamant in challenging a proposed Bureau of Land Management plan that would substantially change oil and gas leasing in the Piceance Basin.

On top of that, with the abundance of litigation related to public lands, many federal lands agencies now seem to make managing for lawsuits their top priority.

Additionally, major changes in land use may occur even without action in Congress, without broad public planning efforts, and absent litigation. As we have noted several times, no federal law changed between the 1980s and now that would prohibit a professional bike race from being held across Colorado National Monument. The National Park Service simply changed its internal policies, and those policies aren’t consistently implemented across the country.

More consistent and commonsense federal land management policies are certainly to be desired. But that won’t be achieved through in-your-face state legislation that is largely symbolic, not realistic — legislation such as that which passed in the Utah House this week.


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