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Utah legislature calls for transfer of Bonneville Salt Flats to state’s control

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Photo by Steven Harris.

Land-speed racers frustrated with the federal Bureau of Land Management’s oversight of the shrinking and thinning Bonneville Salt Flats may no longer have to deal with the bureau under a new proposal working its way through the Utah legislature that would put control of the salt flats in the state’s hands.

The resolution currently making its way through the state’s legislature, House Concurrent Resolution 1, would encourage the passage of federal legislation designed to transfer the control of all public lands within Utah’s boundaries to the state itself.

“The state’s concern over federal management is not an issue of the public lands themselves, but the unconstitutional alignment and structural failure of the federal government to manage the public lands properly,” the resolution reads. “The state of Utah seeks management and control over the public lands not to sell them, but to protect them in the way they always should have been protected.”

As pointed out in the resolution, the state has already completed an economic feasibility study showing it capable of effectively managing the public lands. That study came in the wake of the state’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, passed in 2012, which called for the state to hand over the title to all federally-held public lands in the state, exempting only the state’s national parks, national monuments, and national wilderness areas.

The federal government currently controls as much as 70 percent (about 38.1 million acres) of the total land area in Utah. While it is included on the National Register of Historic Places, the 33,000-acre Bonneville Salt Flats has no official status beyond that of federally owned public land, thus relegating its management to the BLM.

After canceled Speed Weeks in 2014 and 2015, Bonneville racers began to agitate for the BLM to take action on the worsening condition of the salt flats – specifically to address the potash mining conducted via a BLM lease that some racers believe has contributed to the current state of the salt flats. However, they grew increasingly disheartened with the bureau last year following a summit with regional BLM leaders that produced nothing more than a promise to study the situation.

Under the Utah Public Land Management Act, which the state passed last year, any federal lands transferred to the state would fall under the jurisdiction of the state’s Division of Land Management. That division would then be responsible for coordinating all uses of the land, including mining and recreation.

While H.C.R. 1 doesn’t specifically mention the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Utah legislature did pass a resolution early last year calling on the BLM to restore the salt flats to a safe racing condition.

Paul Edwards, the state’s public information officer, said that the resolution would indeed cover Bonneville as part of the state’s public lands. However, he said that the resolution is not the same as a law and that it will have no binding effect should the state government pass it. “It’s just an expression of the legislature,” he said, “and it’s not clear that everyone here is on board with the language expressed in it.”

H.C.R. 1, as it’s worded, also provides for a lawsuit to get the federal government to comply with the Transfer of Public Lands Act should the federal government refuse to draft the legislation called for in the state’s resolution.

Utah’s state house of representatives passed the resolution Tuesday, thus sending it to the state’s senate. The state’s senate has since referred it to the senate’s Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.