An attorney seeking to replace Utah Sen. Robert Bennett (R) has pledged to push legislation to curb the Interior secretary's authority to cancel oil and gas leases and argued that the United States may only exercise sovereignty over federal lands with the consent of the state's Legislature.
Republican Mike Lee, a week after narrowly defeating opponent Tim Bridgewater in the state's GOP primary, said he believes the Constitution grants Utah authority to use eminent domain to seize federal lands within its boundaries, a position that worries environmental groups working to protect national monuments and other sensitive lands in the state.
Lee, a legal scholar and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito who served briefly as legal counsel under former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), said he would promote public land management policies in Congress that place a greater emphasis on extracting the vast amounts of mineral resources lying underneath his state.
The 39-year-old lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney is considered an early favorite to defeat Democrat Sam Granato in the November general election. Utah has not elected a Democratic senator since 1970.
"The need for oil doesn't seem to be disappearing, and yet we're sending about $500 billion a year to other countries," said Lee, who argued on behalf of counties and energy companies in a case challenging the Interior Department's decision to halt 77 oil and gas leases in Utah's Uintah Basin last year.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the leases were issued by the Bush administration without the proper environmental reviews, with some of them located near protected lands in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon and Arches National Park.
If elected, Lee said he would push for legislation that would prevent the Interior secretary from unilaterally rescinding leases that are granted under carefully crafted resource management plans.
"The resource management plans conclude that the lands at issue were appropriate for leasing, and that conclusion came at the end of a process that lasted for about a decade," said Lee. "To say the secretary of Interior can just disregard all that and cancel those leases unilaterally is absurd."
Lee said Congress should amend the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to make promotion of energy independence a priority for federal land use policies.
"We need to develop energy resources in the U.S. to a far greater extent than we are now," said Lee, who said he also supports opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.
While a political newcomer who has never held public office, Lee garnered attention this year with his support of a controversial state bill to use eminent domain to seize federal lands, which cover approximately two-thirds of the state.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Chris Herrod (R) and signed into law in March by Gov. Gary Herbert (R), authorizes the state attorney general to identify a federal holding where the state has a strong legal argument to use eminent domain, with the intention of carrying a case to the Supreme Court (Land Letter, April 1).
At a February hearing before the Utah General Assembly, Lee explained the constitutional underpinnings supporting the bill.
"The so-called enclave clause of the Constitution gives Congress exclusive legislative jurisdiction over federal lands within state boundaries that have been acquired by Congress with the consent of the state," said Lee. "Unless such consent has been granted by a host state's Legislature, the federal government owns those lands not as a sole sovereign lawmaker but as more of a proprietor."
While considered unlikely to succeed in a court battle, some Utah officials hope Lee's legal argument can be used to loosen restrictions on federal lands such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where roads have been closed to off-highway vehicle (OHV) users over the protests of county officials.
The nearly 2-million-acre monument was declared in 1996 by President Clinton in a move that startled Utah politicians and bred deep distrust in Utah of the federal government's land management policies.
In May, Lee defended Kane County, Utah, in a federal appeals court case arguing that the county had authority to regulate and maintain roads running through the monument that local residents use to access homes, jobs and stores.
Utah further argued that plaintiff groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Wilderness Society, had no legal standing to challenge the county's decision to remove Bureau of Land Management signs barring motorized vehicles (Land Letter, May 6).
"If people within a state build roads across federal lands and create access to those lands, they will have an ongoing right to use them," Lee said. "The federal government has not done a very good job at recognizing the validity of the state and county interests in owning those roads."
Lee seeks to replace Bennett, a three-term senator who is credited by environmental groups and others for shepherding a broadly supported public lands bill for Washington County last year that included more than 250,000 acres of new wilderness, a trail management plan for OHVs and the authorized sale of public lands for private development.
While separate land-use plans are underway in Piute, San Juan, Beaver and Emery counties, Bennett's defeat at the state Republican convention in May left open the question of whether there is enough time for him to see any of the bills to completion before he leaves office.
Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) would be the most likely lawmaker to sponsor such a bill in Bennett's absence, but Hatch has not indicated whether he is ready to lead in the planning process, local officials say.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said he was looking forward to working with Bennett on the county's land-use planning provisions once the bill became law. "I think it's a real loss to the state of Utah to lose Senator Bennett," Adams said, adding that Lee has not indicated whether he is interested in participating in the county's land-use plan.
"There's a real learning curve that will need to happen with Mr. Lee," said Adams, who, along with the county's other two commissioners, endorsed Bennett, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in the state convention. "But I like a lot of [Lee's] ideas. I think he's a good man."
No matter who takes over Bennett's seat in Congress, Washington County's land-use planning process will remain on track, said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a Moab-based group that supports a bill to designate about 9 million acres of wilderness in Utah.
"Senator Bennett has been engaged on the Wilderness Act and was active and worked hard on it," he said. "He also was also pretty aggressive in going after this administration on its conservation efforts."
What's driving wilderness in Utah is the county commissioners, who are motivated to resolve wilderness issues in their jurisdiction in hopes of pre-empting a real or perceived threat from the federal government, Groene said.
"They see the tide coming against them," he said. "What's clear is that that dynamic is not going to change."
Lee said he is willing to work with any county on a land-use plan that includes wilderness as long as it includes the participation of the Utah Legislature, a body that has been traditionally resistant to wilderness proposals.
While applauding Bennett's wilderness work, Lee cautioned against the restrictive regulations he said come with such designations.
"You need to think of what wilderness really does," he said. "For the most part, it's declaring that land off-limits to most human activity and that cuts to the heart of what it means to have sovereign jurisdiction of land."