Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has called for a summit of Western governors — Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming — in Salt Lake City tomorrow to discuss their stance on federal control of millions of acres in these states.
Just how strong Gov. Brian Sandoval will be, or even if he will show up, is not clear.
In March, Herbert signed House Bill 148, the latest volley in the long-running skirmish known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. The bill demands the United States extinguish title to federally occupied lands — about two-thirds of the state — and transfer title to the state of Utah on or before Dec. 31, 2014. I prefer the term “occupied” to controlled or owned.
Nevada has been there and done that — to no avail. The Nevada Legislature has passed similar bills and the voters in 1996 amended the state Constitution to remove the so-called Disclaimer Clause in which the residents of the territory were required to “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”
This would appear to fly in the face of the Equal Footing Doctrine under which all states should be admitted to the union under equal circumstances.
As Vin Suprynowicz points out in a recent column:
“Legislation introduced in 1979 by then-state Sen. Dean Rhoads, directing the state attorney general to sue the federal government for control of all federal lands not specifically set aside for federal forts, post offices or Indian reservations, ‘is still a part of Nevada law,” (investigative reporter Tim ) Findley reported (in Range magazine), ‘backed even more by a statewide referendum in 1996 in which voters overwhelmingly supported the idea of state control of public lands.’
“So why hasn’t it happened?
“’The Nevada attorney general has never taken the argument to federal courts,’ Findley explained.”
The point is: Sandoval was one of those attorneys general who never took the argument to federal court. Will he stand up for the voters of Nevada now that he is governor?
The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that the Washington bureaucracy has been laughing up its sleeve at the Western states for deigning to try to wrest control of valuable land from federal hegemony.
“Top Interior Department officials, including Secretary Ken Salazar, slammed Utah’s elected leaders Tuesday for waging a campaign to take control of most federal lands, arguing the move is nothing more than a political stunt to appease conservative voters,” the newspaper reported.
Though the Utah effort is being backed by Gov. Herbert, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, Salazar told a Tribune reporter, “From my point of view, it defies common sense. I think it is political rhetoric you see in an election year. The fact is, Utah is a great example of where, through the use of public lands, we are creating thousands and thousands of jobs.”
Perhaps the secretary is unaware of the China Mountain Wind project being delayed for two years or oil and gas leases denied because of vague concerns that something might affect sage-grouse habitat.
The Tribune also quoted U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey as saying, “I find it personally disappointing. It will take a lot of energy, and it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Rep. Bishop, chairman of a public lands subcommittee on which Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei sits, said Salazar is making it difficult for Utah to access natural resources in order to raise funds for public education.
“Their efforts to whitewash what this administration does for the West defies common sense,” Bishop was quoted as saying. “We want our schoolchildren treated fairly.”
The bottom line is: When oil and gas is produced on federal land the 12.5 percent royalty is split between the federal and state coffers, though if the state had control all of the royalties could be going solely to the states.
The Tribune story concluded with this quote from Bishop:
“The land should be used to benefit people, and this administration flat out doesn’t care about people. They care about interest groups. They care about campaign cash, and they may even care about votes, but not people.”
Will Sandoval join the fray or sit back and wait? There is a considerable amount of money at stake.