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Know the West

'We are the decider.'


Several years ago, two off-road enthusiasts threw their backs into building and improving a trail through Utah’s Recapture Canyon near Blanding. They used picks and shovels, added culverts and retaining walls.

They likely had the support of many local off-roaders, eager for new places to four-wheel. What they did not have was permission to build on public land, managed by the BLM.

So it was that, for their labors, they were slapped with $35,000 in fines in early 2011.

"They were accused of parking on an Anasazi ruin that they didn’t know was there," San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge told the Utah Legislature early this month, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. "It devastated one of these men and to this day he doesn’t know what he did wrong. It was a felony for cutting down a fence post."

Eldredge was testifying in favor of HB155, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R, which would limit federal land agents’ authority to enforce laws except where collaborative agreements with local sheriff’s departments allow. According to Reporter Brian Maffly, federal officials were not invited to defend themselves against accusations of abuses of power. But if they had been, “the committee would have heard a much different version of this pair’s illegal trail-building at Recapture Canyon, where authorities estimated damage to archaeological sites at $300,000.”

That lack of federal input has been a pattern as the Legislature considers a slew of bills and resolutions seeking to give Utah more control over everything from public land and endangered species to water rights, in preparation for the close of its 2013 session this Thursday.

Even the feds are scratching their heads over this latest volley of anti-federal vitriol, much of which appears divorced from reality. Take HB382, another gem floated this session by Noel, which would create an official “grazing zone” in and around the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the state’s southeastern corner, despite the fact that existing grazing was grandfathered into its operation when it was created. Reports the Tribune:

"The counties have witnessed time after time where managers have lost their moorings and use the presence of the monument to minimize and take away grazing," Mark Ward, policy director of the Utah Association of Counties, told a House committee on (March 4).

But monument manager Rene Berkhoudt, whose staff was not informed of the legislation and was not invited to testify, said he has no idea what these critics are talking about. BLM has taken no steps to reduce grazing allotments, although actual grazing inside the monument has fluctuated over the years in response to changing conditions.

And then there’s the $300,000 the Legislature wants to authorize for lobbying the federal government against wolf reintroduction to Utah. Nevermind that the feds have no plans to reintroduce wolves to the state, or that it’s unclear whether a similar investment the Legislature made last year did anything more than line the pockets of an anti-wolf advocacy group, according to the Tribune. The group that lobbied for the money, Big Game Forever, was also the only contractor to submit a bid to take up the task and was awarded it mere days later. But as of yet, according to the Tribune, there is no evidence the group has done anything to keep the imaginary wolves at bay, and they aren’t required to submit a progress report until this summer:

There are no Washington lobbyists currently registered for Big Game Forever and have been none since April 1, 2011.

At a Feb. 21 appropriations hearing, (Big Game Forever founder Don) Peay gave a vague response when asked about the work his group has accomplished with this money.

Noel is also behind a resolution that attempts to exempt private land in San Juan County from federal designation of critical habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed for endangered species listing. And rounding things out, reports Maffly, there are also bills and resolutions that:

HB68 » Would limit the reach of the public trust doctrine.

HB164 » Would enable local government officials to perform work on federal land to fix what they deem a threat to public safety.

HJR14 » Would declare that Forest Service claims on state waters undermine state sovereignty.

HJR15 » Would declare state jurisdiction over forests mismanaged by federal agencies.

SCR3 » Would seek local management over the Utah prairie dog.

SJR13 » Would urge Utah leaders and congressional delegation to lean on federal authorities to cede public lands to the state.

The slew of measures build on a Utah law passed last year (part of a wave of states to attempt such a thing in a sort of resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion) demanding the feds cede control over public lands within Utah to the state government. Despite the likely (and pretty well established) unconstitutionality of this and similar laws, the Legislature has pulled together millions of dollars in legal funds to defend it, adding another million in this year’s budget. The increase in intensity probably has something to do with the fact that Obama won a second term, since reactionary lawmaking has been a hallmark of conservative Legislatures while the Democrat has been in office.

Besides, faced with such clear tyranny as, um, grandfathered-in grazing allotments and a lack of plans to introduce wolves, what choice does Utah’s government have but to fight back? As Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored several of the anti-federal measures put it: "We are the decider. We have to act like it."

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.

Image of cows in the vicinity of Grand Staircase-Escalante courtesy of Flickr user Ed Siasoco.