Attorney pitches federal lands grab


BOISE — Two Utah lawmakers and a lawyer were in Boise on Monday to urge Idaho lawmakers to take on the federal government.

They addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate committees which deal with natural resources. They were there to argue that Idaho could win a U.S. Supreme Court case that would allow it to take control of federal lands within the state.

The Senate Resources and Environment Committee and the House Resources and Conservation Committee heard testimony from George Wentz, who has been hired by the state of Utah to pursue such a case, along with two Utah lawmakers who support the move.

The hearing room was packed with hunters, fishermen, conservationists and others opposed to a state takeover of federal lands. Most wore stickers bearing the slogan: “Keep your hands off my public lands!”

The crowd was vocal in its opposition, often heckling Wentz and the Utah lawmakers, or breaking into loud cheers when Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, challenged them. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, repeatedly gavelled the hecklers down.

Utah Rep. Kevin Stratton told lawmakers that he believes in public lands.

“We are a public lands state, and we will remain a public lands state,” he said.

Many opposed to a federal land seizure worry that states will sell off such lands, but Stratton said that isn’t the intention of the movement he’s affiliated with.

“If we were to sell our public lands in Utah it would be like a very successful herdsmen selling his cows. … We’re interested in the milk,” he said.

The milk, in this case, is timber, oil, gas and other natural resources that could be leased to private interests rather than sold, he said.

“The surface estate can be protected” while valuable resources are extracted he said, as the audience broke into disapproving laughter.

Stennett pressed Stratton, asking what Utah had bought with the $14 million it expects to spend on the effort to take possession of federal lands.

“What is the price of liberty?” Stratton responded and again was met with loud heckling.

Wentz then explained the legal grounds he sees upon which Idaho could make a case for taking ownership of federal lands.

Wentz’s argument was that Idaho and other Western states face discrimination from the federal government when compared with states in the Midwest and the East.

“Idaho can’t tax 61 percent of its land,” he said.

Wentz said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, provides a basis for Idaho to join such a challenge. That ruling struck down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of disenfranchising black voters to preapprove changes to their election systems with the federal government.

That ruling used a principle which says that the sovereignty of each state in the union must be protected equally. Wentz argued that the same principle could be applied by comparing Eastern states with little federal land to Western states with lots of federal land.

Idaho’s Constitution contains an explicit prohibition on seeking to take control of federal lands without the consent of the federal government.

When Idaho’s constitutional convention met in 1889 to write the state constitution, there was relatively little debate on that section of the constitution. A section prohibiting taking possession of public lands was proposed, which included the phrase: “The people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries (of the state).”

That wasn’t quite strong enough for members of the convention. They voted to add another phrase indicating that the section “shall be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of the state of Idaho.”

Wentz argued that this doesn’t say what it seems to say. Such language, he argued, is only meant to ensure that the federal government had a clear title to such lands so it could later be transferred to the state.

That clashes with the opinion of Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who has opined that Idaho’s Constitution bars the possibility of taking federal lands through a court action.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.