Legal Updates

Utah Law Copied by More Western States Attempting to Take Control of Federal Land

Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act (“TPLA”) demands that the federal government “extinguish” its title to more than 30 million acres of federal public lands by December 31, 2014. Utah Code Ann. § 63L-6-101 et seq. (2012). When the law was enacted in 2012, former Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar charged that the legislation “defied common sense.”

Since then, Utah’s own legislative lawyers and most outside legal analyses have concluded that if challenged, it is likely that courts would find the law unconstitutional. In addition, the state probably could not afford to manage the lands. A report prepared by the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, Utah State University’s Department of Applied Economics and Weber State University’s Department of Economics concluded that unless all of the 30 million acres were opened to natural resource extraction, the state would not have sufficient funds to manage the land. Even then, the state would have to demand 100% of the royalties (rather than split them 50/50 with the federal government, as it does currently).

Finally, even if the law survived legal challenge, all of the 30 million acres were opened to natural resource extraction, and Utah received 100% of the royalties, the report also concluded that oil and gas prices would have to remain stable and high in order to generate revenue sufficient to cover the cost of managing the land. As recent events in the industry have taught some and reminded others, oil and gas prices, like those of most commodities, do not historically remain stable or high.

This year, Democratic Utah state senator Jim Dabakis introduced a bill that would have required the state attorney general to sue the federal government for state control over 20 million acres of public land by June 2016. According to senator Dabakis, “[t]he intent of the bill is to once and for all settle the question about who owns public lands in Utah[.] . . . It’s about forcing the hand of those who’ve made careers out of this dispute.” By the end of the 2015 legislative session, Senate Bill 105 did not pass, presumably leaving at least some careers in place for now.

Likewise, the law remains in place, unchallenged and unchanged. Perhaps more surprising, despite studies concluding the numerous ways in which Utah’s law “defies common sense,” this year, seven western states joined Utah in laying the groundwork for land transfers by introducing similar bills to their own state legislatures. Although this land grab may be proceeding at geologic pace, its progress appears to be headed toward making a mountain out of a molehill.    

Read more about this issue in an article published in High Country News: