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Most Utahns, Mormons back going after federal lands

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By brandon loomis

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 13 2012 04:48PM
Updated Aug 5, 2012 11:32PM

Most Utahns appear ready to evict their federal landlords.

The Legislature’s move to claim the U.S. government’s vast land holdings in the Beehive State and press the case in court is OK with most Utahns, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune poll.

Asked whether they support or oppose "recently passed legislation that demands that the U.S. government give Utah ownership and control of federal land in the state," 64 percent said they back the effort.

"A lot of people complain that the state doesn’t have any money," poll respondent and Castle Dale retiree Mark Williams said Friday, "but if they had control of those lands, they could sell the resources."

"I would hope that Utah would be able to put that land to use to get more energy," Bountiful resident Donna Sweet said. "Energy is a big question mark right now."

Fewer than a quarter of Utahns (23 percent) oppose the legislation, and 13 percent are undecided.

Mason-Dixon Polling & Research conducted the phone survey of 625 registered voters for The Tribune from April 9 through 11. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Supporters include 84 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents, but — in a sign of a sharp political divide on the issue — only 15 percent of Democrats like the idea.

Respondents also showed a stark religious gap, with 77 percent of Mormons supporting the land quest and only 34 percent of non-Mormons doing the same.

The overall support seems low to Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who sponsored HB148, alleging that Washington reneged on a pledge at Utah’s statehood to dispose of all federal lands. He believes support would grow even further if more people knew the context — that the bill leaves intact national parks, "all the pretty heritage sites."

Likewise, Ivory said, more residents would get on board if they realized the act that created Utah promised to privatize the lands or turn them over to the states. His bill seeks 30 million acres of that land.

"If you were to have a little education," he said, "that [support] number would probably go substantially higher."

Others read the poll numbers as an indication that Utahns know too little to oppose the legislation.

"People are minimally informed about the issue," Utah State University political scientist Michael Lyons said, but like with many policy issues, they want to take a stand against Washington.

"Superficially, symbolically, they like the idea of Utah controlling land rather than the federal government. They don’t understand all the ramifications of a transfer of control."

Among those considerations would be management costs, he said. Supporters, including Ivory, counter that state control would open billions of dollars in energy development that they believe the federal government is stifling.

Legal scholars have questioned the bill’s interpretation of the state’s enabling act as pledging anything beyond what Congress sees fit to do with the lands. The Legislature’s own attorneys flagged the bill as potentially unconstitutional. Gov. Gary Herbert signed it last month while noting it’s "a first step" but "a fight worth having."

Many Utahns, especially off-roaders, have rallied against federal control in recent years because they believe the Bureau of Land Management unfairly restricts vehicle access. Environmentalists say most lands remain open, thanks largely to federal ownership.

"Utahns should understand that this isn’t about turning federal lands over to the state for management," said Tim Wagner, a Salt Lake City-based organizer for the Sierra Club. "It’s about selling off lands to private interests, which will truly result in the public being locked out."

Public lands are part of the West’s heritage, he said. "If you want to see how the private sector manages public lands, move to Ohio."

bloomis@sltrib.com

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