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Utah chafes under federal land controls

The Baltimore Sun

Recapture Canyon, Utah -- It's a small gesture of defiance - a narrow metal bridge that allows off-road vehicles illegal access to this archaeologically rich canyon. But the modest structure, built by San Juan County officials on U.S. government land, is a symbol of the widespread local resistance to federal authority across much of southern Utah's magnificent countryside.

Historically, residents of the rural West have challenged federal jurisdiction, claiming authority over rights of way, livestock management and water use. But nowhere is the modern-day defiance more determined, better organized or better funded than in Utah, where millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent fighting federal authority, and where the state government is helping to pay the tab - much of it, critics say, without oversight.

For the past decade, the Utah Legislature and two state agencies have been funneling money to southern Utah counties to bankroll legal challenges to federal jurisdiction. Most recently, a state representative persuaded the legislature to provide $100,000 to help finance a lawsuit by ranchers and two counties seeking to expand cattle grazing in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Grand Staircase is one of a dozen parks and monuments that draw tens of millions of visitors to the region every year to take in the spectacular high desert and red-rock canyons that have awed travelers since John Wesley Powell voyaged down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869.

Settlers, on the other hand, have been famously indifferent to the scenery. "A hell of a place to lose a cow," is how 19th-century homesteader Ebenezer Bryce is said to have described the labyrinthine landscape now known as Bryce Canyon National Park.

"This is a beautiful and unique land," said Bill Smart, retired editor of Salt Lake City's Deseret News. "It's distressing that we can't all be more appreciative of the values that other people see here."

In southern Utah, where the federal government controls as much as 90 percent of the land in some counties, many residents feel they are permanent tenants on land their ancestors pioneered. The resentment hardens whenever the Washington landlord imposes restrictions on ranching, mining and motorized recreation.

"Who gets to control the land is the great American story," said Karl Jacoby, associate professor of history at Brown University. "In part it is about economics, but a lot of it is about identity and who we are as a people."

Officials of one county have written a bill pending in Congress that orders the sale of federal land, with the proceeds given to the county. Other Utah counties have said they will follow suit. And officials from the two counties surrounding Grand Staircase have lobbied in Washington to drastically reduce the 2 million-acre national monument.

Elected officials have flouted federal authority by bulldozing roads in the Grand Staircase monument and Capitol Reef National Park and by tearing down signs banning off-road vehicles in Canyonlands National Park. A handful of counties have developed transportation plans that declare roads open that federal land managers have closed.

Selma Sierra, Utah director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, insisted that the agency's relationship with counties is good. "The BLM manages a substantial amount of land in this state. Yes, those lands belong to everyone in the country, but the decisions we make affect those individuals more so than anywhere else."

But federal officials say increases in motorized recreation and scarring of the landscape from energy exploration are threatening unique historic and cultural treasures and damaging wildlife habitat.

A recent BLM archaeological assessment of third-century Anasazi ruins and cliff dwellings in Recapture Canyon found evidence of looting and off-road vehicle damage. According to the assessment, the new, county-built bridge "can be expected to hasten and increase indirect impacts to cultural resources here."

State Rep. Mike Noel, a Republican from the southern community of Kanab, said: It gets down to "sovereignty and autonomy. It's Western independence. We own the water, we have the right to graze, the minerals are still available, and the roads belong to us. By dang, we are not going to give them up."

Noel is part of a self-styled "cowboy caucus" in the state legislature that has helped direct hundreds of thousands of state dollars to counties bickering with the federal government.

In addition, the Constitutional Defense Council, established to protect state and county interests on federal land, has paid out more than $10 million, much of it to assist southern counties in legal battles.

The two-year-old Public Lands Policy Coordination Office offered each county in Utah $10,000 last year to fight for rights of way across federal land and is funding a $1 million study to examine the economic impact of large federal holdings in the state.

Critics say taxpayer money should not be used to fight these battles and argue that there is little accounting of how much money is spent by the Constitutional Defense Council and public lands office. A 2004 state audit of the Constitutional Defense Council concluded that it provided inadequate financial detail about its operations and recommended that it issue regular financial statements.

Julie Cart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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