Utah Legislature’s Public Lands Commission Announces Key Legal Findings

The Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands announced key findings from a comprehensive legal analysis performed by legal scholars and practicing attorneys from across the country.

These experts conducted a rigorous objective legal analysis to determine if there are legitimate legal precedents and historical principles for the State of Utah to challenge the federal government’s permanent ownership of the majority of the land within the State. The conclusion of the legal analysis is that compelling legal basis does exist for the State of Utah to challenge federal ownership of public lands in the state. The findings identify three primary legal theories as having merit
1. The Equal Sovereignty Principle, which mandates that the States in the U.S. Federal system be equal in sovereignty with one another.
2. The closely related Equal Footing Doctrine, which requires that States admitted to the U.S. subsequent to the 13 original colonies should receive all sovereign rights enjoyed by previously existing states in the U.S., including the right to control land within their borders.
3. The Compact Theory, which posits that Utah’s acceptance of admission into the U.S. entailed explicit and implicit promises that the federal government would “timely dispose” of public lands in Utah’s borders, as it had done with the states admitted prior to Utah.
“All states enter the union under what the Supreme Court calls an ‘equal footing’ – a right that is older than the Constitution itself,” said Professor Ronald D. Rotunda, constitutional scholar and member of the legal team. “The Federal Government treats Utah and the other western states decidedly unequally. It actively stimulated growth in the 38 States to the East, while denying Utah sovereignty and forever locking away over 66 percent of the State’s land. This disparate, discriminatory treatment violates fundamental fairness and is contrary to the Nation’s founding principles. Our conclusion is that Utah can pursue legal remedies to right this wrong and put Utah and all western states on an equal footing with states in the East.”
An economic study commissioned by the legislature in 2013 and completed in November of 2014 (performed by the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University) found fiscal evidence that the State could effectively manage these lands outside of the National Parks at a lower cost than what the Federal Government is currently spending.
“The results of this comprehensive legal analysis compliment the previous findings of this commission, including the economic impact study from last year,” said Rep. Keven J. Stratton (R), co-chair of the Commission. “The transfer of lands, not including existing tribal lands, national parks and pre-1995 national monuments, from federal to state control would enable Utah to manage these lands more effectively and at a lower cost to taxpayers. It is our duty to Utah’s citizens and its future generations to ensure the proper management and conservation of these lands, while balancing access and economic opportunities with appropriate fiscal frugality.” 
Jim Jardine, partner at Ray, Quinney, and Nebeker based out of Salt Lake City said, “This issue has been brewing in the West for generations. As a Utahn, I was doubtful at first of what the analysis might yield, but I was surprised to find such compelling historical and constitutional arguments supporting Utah’s case regarding these public lands.”
Senator David Hinkins (R), co-chair of the Commission stated that “This examination was performed by some of the best and brightest legal minds from across the nation, which is reflected in the quality of their analysis. These legal experts have focused solely on what is legally defensible in determining who should manage Utah’s public lands.”
The Commission today voted in favor of a recommendation that the legal team draft a complaint to be forwarded to the Attorney General and pursue legal action against the Federal Government to claim rightful stewardship over these lands.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said, “I am enthusiastic about the results of this analysis. As an avid skier and mountain biker, I know Utah does a great job managing our lands, and I am eager to be involved in an effort that puts these federally controlled lands under the responsible management of the State of Utah.”
“Utah has been well-served by this critical process of determining who has the rightful authority to manage our state’s public lands,” said Speaker Greg Hughes. “I have been continually impressed by the dedication demonstrated by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as well as by the legal experts this Commission has retained to research the State’s legal standing.”
Currently, the Federal Government controls 66.5 percent of Utah’s land area, more than any other state except Nevada (81 percent). As a basis for comparison, only 0.26 percent of New York is under federal control.