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Returning Or Taking? U Of U Law Professor Discusses Utah's Federal Land History

Government leaders opposed to Utah's two largest monument designations, including Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch, have labeled the designations as "land grabs" or "thefts,” which raises the question: did the state of Utah ever own these lands?

"We’re talking really about taking land rather than taking back land," said John Ruple, a law professor with the University of Utah. He claims Utah never had title to the federal lands.

“These lands originally belonged to the Native Americans. When the Spaniards came into the South-West, they obtained title through the doctrine of conquest," he said. "The Mexicans won their independence from Spain, and then the Federal Government obtained title from the Mexicans following the Mexican-American War. We didn’t have Utah lands until the Federal Government first created the state and then turned about seven and half million acres over to the state."

At the dawn of statehood, Utah disclaimed its right to the public lands within its territory with the creation of two documents.

"One is the Enabling Act that set forth the conditions under which Utah could become a state. The Federal Government gave the state of Utah significant land and then it required them to say 'that is it,'" Ruple said. "The second document is the Utah Constitution which incorporated the Enabling Act and says, in effect, that Utah did disclaim title to these lands. And we think that these documents are pretty clear on their face."

It is important to note that the Bears Ears designation does include trust lands owned and managed by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA; other state lands; Native American reservation land and small parcels of private land.

Ruple said it is still inappropriate to call Bears Ears a land grab because the state and private lands within the monument retain their previous owner and are not converted to public land.