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Utah showdown with the feds as Dec. 31 deadline approaches for state to reclaim its land

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(NaturalNews) An impending showdown between Utah and the federal government may set a precedent affecting future disputes regarding state vs. federal land ownership.

In 2012, Governor Gary Herbert formally challenged the feds over the right to control 31.2 million acres of Utah land when he signed the "Transfer of Public Lands Act." One of the provisions of the act demands that the federal government turn over the lands by December 31, 2014.

At this point, the feds haven't responded and it remains unclear exactly what will happen as the deadline approaches. The lands in question account for more than 64 percent of Utah's total acreage.

Federal government controls over half of western lands

The federal government controls more than half of the land in the West and many states are beginning to challenge its continued right to do so.

Utah, however, has pushed the debate to a new level and the case may end up before the Supreme Court.

Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, sponsor of the legislation, said:

Under increasing federal control, access is being restricted. The health of the land is diminishing horribly. And the productivity is depressed. This is the only way to get better access, better health and better productivity.

Feds reneged on terms of 1894 Enabling Act

When Utah was becoming a state, the federal government passed "The 1894 Enabling Act," which gave it control over the majority of the land, while promising to eventually return it to the state. In exchange, the feds would use the revenues from managing the land to fund Utah's public education system.

Essentially, the feds reneged on the original deal and engaged in what many see as a massive land-grab, one in which the land has been ineffectively managed, while educational infrastructure investment has remained paltry. Utah ranks among the lowest states in terms of school funding.

If there's no response by the end of the December, the state plans to move ahead with its program of "education, negotiation, legislation and litigation."

Showdown more likely in courtroom than Bryce Canyon

Although there won't likely be any armed showdowns between state and federal agents in Utah, it should be interesting to see how far the litigation goes. Utah has taken a bold step which may prove to be an example for other states considering similar legislation.

Advocates of the Utah challenge against the feds were encouraged by the recent release of a report entitled "An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah," the findings of which indicated that the plan would pay off economically for the state.

The analysis suggested that the state would be able to bring in enough income from managing the land itself to more than cover the costs of doing so. Mineral resources development could bring in more than $330 million - roughly $50 million more than the cost of management.

The report also found that federal control of large percentages of land results in an economic "drag" on local communities - most counties in Utah exceed what the authors consider the healthy limit of around 40 to 45 percent federally controlled land.

Governor Herbert's responsed to the report saying, "I expect that public discussion will be well served by this report. It shows the complexities and connections between Utah's robust economy and the great quality of life Utahans enjoy."

Other Western states, as well as various interest groups, will likely be paying very close attention to the results of the precedent being set in Utah.

One faction in opposition to the legislation is the environmentalist movement, which sees the relinquishment of federal control as a potential threat to Utah's natural resources.

Green activists worry that state control will lead to expanded gas and oil development in wild areas, while the legislation's defenders are promising that won't be the case.

If Utah is successful in gaining control over the disputed lands, it remains to be seen if it can manage the responsibility in a way that benefits the state's citizens while preserving its precious wilderness areas.

Sources for this article include:

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