BOISE — Utah leaders planning a lawsuit to force the federal government to transfer public lands to state control outlined their legal case for Idaho lawmakers Feb. 29 and requested their cooperation.
Opponents representing several conservation organizations and sportsman’s groups, some donning hunter-orange clothing, packed the hearing room, groaning and scoffing throughout presentations by the Utah group.
Utah’s speakers, addressing Idaho’s House Committee on Natural Resources and Senate Resources and Environment Committee, included the lead attorney on the issue, George Wentz, and the co-chairs for the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, Sen. David P. Hinkins and Rep. Kevin Stratton.
They argued the federal government has failed at managing Western public lands, and Western states have been unconstitutionally placed at an economic disadvantage by having so much of their land under federal ownership. They said 64.5 percent of Utah and 61.36 percent of Idaho is federal land. While the federal government gets a 76-cent return for every dollar it spends on managing public lands, state trust lands generate $11 to $14 for every dollar invested, Hinkins said.
Utah officials estimate they’ll need $14 million to wage the legal battle. Stratton said Utah has spent less than half of the $2 million it appropriated two years ago to commence work.
Stratton emphasized Utah has made no formal request for funding from Idaho but aims to “share our concerns to see if there’s alignment with those concerns and to see if there’s a way we can work together.” In response to questions about the cost of litigation, Stratton asked, “What is the price of liberty?”
Wentz cited U.S. Supreme Court case law concluding that states must be equal in sovereign power.
“Is Idaho weaker than New York because Idaho doesn’t have dominion over all of its land? Actually, it is,” Wentz said. “Taxes are the fuel of self-government, but Idaho can’t tax 61 percent of its land.”
The Utah group said federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes awarded based on public land acreage have been used as bargaining chips to force western lawmakers to support eastern policies. Wentz said federal lands also limit population growth — the bases for calculating the Electoral College and the number of seats state have in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, and Rep. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, were skeptical of the legal arguments.
“Under your definition, the only way states could be fully equal would be if they all had equal amounts of land, which surely can’t be a constitutional requirement,” Rubel told Wentz.
Stennett said Idaho agreed to a disclaimer clause giving up any claim to federal land within its borders as a condition of statehood.
“It is quite difficult to take back lands we’ve never owned,” Stennett told Wentz. “Are you proposing we nullify the conditions of statehood?”
Wentz believes a state’s right to equal sovereignty would trump the disclaimer clause.
Other lawmakers, including Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, were receptive to Utah’s pitch. Andrus said a land transfer would generate funds for education and other community services, and the state could prohibit disposing of public land to address concerns about potential land sales.