U researchers: Federal lands takeover won’t help state obtain mineral resources

If states overcome long odds to prevail in their efforts to take over public lands from the federal government, states would not obtain significant mineral resources — a factor that could hobble the state’s economy, a new analysis released from the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law reveals.

The analysis, titled “When Winning Means Losing: Why a State Takeover of Public Lands May Leave States Without the Minerals They Covet,” discusses Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, or TPLA, which demands that the federal government transfer title to more than 31 million acres of federal public lands within Utah to the State. The TPLA has inspired 13 other states to take up related legislation.

Using Utah as an example, the analysis by Bob Keiter, distinguished professor of law and director of the Stegner Center, and John Ruple, an associate professor of law (research), argues that states wouldn’t gain mineral resources if they succeed in taking over public land from the federal government. Moreover, Keiter and Ruple found any mineral rights that states could obtain would be realized only after years of costly litigation — litigation above and beyond the court cases required to test the validity of states’ questionable TPLA-based claims.

“These conclusions follow from well established principles of law predating Utah’s admission to the Union that excluded from grants to the states all lands known to be mineral in character. Therefore, even if the state can establish a duty to dispose of the public domain, and show that such a duty necessitates granting the land to the state, the exclusion of minerals from those grants would severely limit the economic value of the land that would be conveyed to the states,” the researchers state.

“The lack of access to minerals is important because minerals are responsible for 93 percent of the revenue generated from the targeted lands in Utah, and acquiring lands without a source of revenue to fund their management could hobble the state economy,” they added.

The analysis is a follow-up to “A Legal Analysis of the Transfer of Public Lands Movement” and “The Transfer of Public Lands Movement: Taking the ‘Public’ Out of Public Lands.” In the first of these papers Keiter and Ruple concluded that, notwithstanding takeover advocates’ belief that states would be more efficient managers, Utah has no legal basis to demand title to federal public lands. In the second paper, they concluded that even if states did succeed in taking over public lands, the public would have less input into land management, and all who utilize what are now public lands — industry and recreation interests alike — would see the cost of access increase substantially.

According to Keiter and Ruple, research points to a state takeover of public lands as a costly endeavor.

“It is unfortunate that the state appears committed to a legal strategy that has little chance of success, that would involve many years of costly litigation, and where a state victory would come with so many negative unintended consequences,” said Keiter.

“We support efforts to improve public land management, but a state takeover simply is not a viable solution to today’s problems,” added Ruple.

Media Contacts

Melinda Rogersmedia relations manager, S.J. Quinney College of Law
Mobile: 801-608-9888

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