Lawmakers Not Yet Ready to File Lawsuit Over Control of Public Lands

Utah State Capitol 06Perhaps with more hope than real influence, Utah GOP state leaders are clearly trying to convince Democratic President Barack Obama not to designate a national monument at Bears Ears in southeastern Utah.

Wednesday, GOP state House leaders, told their caucus that Rep. Rob Bishop’s big public land-trade bill (which has not been officially introduced into the U.S. House) should go forward. It would set up a special conservation district for the Bears Ears area – a district much smaller than monument acreage.

And if Obama, in the waning days of his administration, won’t make Bears Ears a monument, then Utah may not even file a federal lawsuit the state has spent nearly $1 million researching and drafting, state officials said Wednesday.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, co-chair of the Legislature’s special public lands commission, passed out to both the Democratic and Republican caucuses a detailed expenditure of monies spent by the stewardship commission on legal and public relations work to date.

In 2014, over the objections of legislative Democrats, the GOP majority appropriated $2 million for preparatory work should Utah decide to sue the federal government over 32 million acres now in federal control, but promised to Utah at statehood in 1896.

Most of the disputed acreage is in Bureau of Land Management and National Forest control.

However, even though Stratton has detailed the spending of nearly $1 million to date, he admitted that the disclosure doesn’t satisfy complaints made by Sen. Jim Dabakis and Rep. Joel Briscoe, both D-Salt Lake, members of the stewardship commission, over detailed legal work not made public.

Dabakis and Briscoe have even threatened a lawsuit because the commission GOP co-chairs won’t share with them and the public what the outside legal team says could be legal traps in such a lawsuit.

No, the co-chairs aren’t giving that information out, Stratton confirmed to a gaggle of reporters who surrounded him after his public caucus presentation.

That’s because it is considered client privilege legal strategy, and it would be stupid to make such research public – to be used by federal government lawyers against Utah’s interests.

If Attorney General Sean Reyes decides to file a lawsuit – seeking a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court – then the complaint will be clear on those points, said Stratton.

Or – and this is the carrot offered to the Obama administration – if Bishop’s bill passes the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Senate and is signed by the president – “then this lawsuit may not be needed at all,” said Stratton.

In any case, there will be no rush to file such a complaint, because the U.S. Supreme Court is split ideologically along 4-4 lines currently. And it will take the appointment of a new justice for Utah to see if there is even a chance at a win in the high court.

Stratton said the Legislature gave his commission $2 million two years ago, and they have completed much of their work at half the price.

He detailed the expenditures so far as:

— The New Orleans outside Davillier Law group, $374,134.58 for preparing legal analysis, travel, briefings and public hearings.

— Davillier group, $190,490.20 for post-legal analysis, travel and briefings.

— Strata Public Relations, $135,577.50.

— Payment to Davillier for subcontract work, $212,104.25, broken out this way:

— Nuffer Smith Tucker, $90,701.75.

— Method Communications, $16,050.00

— Revolution Media, $3,190.00.

— Y2 Analytics (a polling firm), $67,300.00

— Foxley and Pignanelli (a local lobbyist firm), $34,862.50.

Stratton said that all the contractors “donated substantial time and expenses” to the project – not charging the state when they could have.

So far $912,306.53 has been spent by the commission, and a significant legal brief has been prepared which Stratton and other GOP legislative leaders believe could well result in a Supreme Court victory and the returning of most federal lands (not counting national parks and monuments) to state control.

Since these lands, by the Utah Constitution, are dedicated to supporting public schools in the state, ultimately school children would see millions – turning into billions – of dollars over the years.

The Davillier group is still doing work on a possible legal complaint to be filed by Utah officials at a later date.

Payment for some of that work is still pending.

Stratton said his commission, as well as the administration of GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, are seriously trying to find accommodations to get control of the federal land, and that citizens shouldn’t worry that vast areas of the federal land will be sold off by Utah State officials.

Utah is a public lands state and will continue to be so – the question is whether the land will be controlled by D.C. federal bureaucrats or state officials, who are closer to Utah citizens, GOP officials argue.

Part of the work of the Davillier group and Strata Public Relations is consulting with other western states to urge their cooperation in fighting for control of their federal lands.

The public legal analysis by the Davillier group can be found here.