- Kelsey Hawes
Utah lawmakers recently tried to sell their Idaho colleagues a $14 million legal argument that they hope could unwind federal oversight of public lands in the West.
The argument shifts the battle over who controls public lands in the West from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and hints at how the next chapter of the Sagebrush Rebellion could play out in statehouses and courtrooms.
Idaho lawmakers from both the House and Senate resources committees opted to table their agendas on Feb. 29 in order to listen to a New Orleans-based attorney who the state of Utah had commissioned to review the legality of federal oversight of Western lands. The Utah Legislature paid for the $1 million legal analysis from the Louisiana attorney George R. Wentz, who gave some insight into the kinds of arguments that could end up in courtrooms should states attempt to transfer control of public lands through litigation.
Wentz told Idaho lawmakers that federal oversight of public lands violates constitutional principles of equal sovereignty, by allowing greater federal oversight in states containing vast amounts of public lands. Wentz said Western states and their holdings of public lands put the states and their people in a “second class” position.
“As a matter of constitutional law, the federal government does not have the power to forever maintain the majority of the land within a few sovereign states,” Wentz argued.
It’s a potentially $14 million argument not every lawmaker bought and a premise that even drew some chuckles in the Idaho Statehouse auditorium, which was filled with hundreds of people who wore stickers reading, “Keep your hands off our public lands.”