Public land takeover suit unlikely in near future

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The deputy to Utah’s top law enforcement official is counseling the state to avoid suing for ownership of public lands, at least for now.

Assistant Attorney General Tony Rampton on Tuesday told about a half dozen lawmakers gathering for a Commission on Federalism to avoid filing such a lawsuit or creating a specific lands transfer plan, saying the takeover is a longshot with too many unknowns.

Rampton recommends Utah wait to do so until it joins other states in gathering more facts. Lawmakers also should wait for a state study predicting the price tag of the lands transfer, he said.

“It’s going to answer a lot of questions about what makes sense,” Rampton said, referring to the study.

To win a court battle, Utah would have to prove that a federal promise to dispose of public land and share the proceeds with Utah trumps the right of Congress to control federal property. It also would need to come up with an equitable solution that has a chance of being accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

West Jordan Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, who is a vocal force behind such efforts to wrestle lands from the federal government, says he agrees with Rampton.

Utah had set a Dec. 31 cutoff for federal officials to turn over millions of acres. But Ivory now says it’s more of a goal than a hard deadline.

“I don’t think anyone expects on Jan. 1, 2015, there’s going to be a lawsuit filed,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/S8mONP). “But look how far we’ve come in two years” from when Utah’s claims were “dismissed absolutely out of hand.”

Taking more time to gather the facts, Rampton said, could win support of environmental groups, ranchers and miners. This would help the state avoid a failure as in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s, he said.

Rampton pointed to a 2013 Arizona measure modeled after Utah’s land-transfer act that he says failed because it didn’t earn support from enough stakeholders. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the legislation, saying it would hurt grazing.

“Obviously, if it’s just the state of Utah, we’re just ‘those nuts out here in Utah, here they go again,’” Rampton said.

“We’re not,” he added, “but people can’t even say that” if a roster of other states join in.

Seven Utah lawmakers comprise the Commission on Federalism headed by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. It includes five Republicans and two Democrats.

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