Petition demands Utah drop 'land grab'

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 3:05 PM

Paul Foy

SALT LAKE CITY— The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance delivered a petition signed by 5,400 people protesting Gov. Gary Herbert’s threat to take over federal lands in Utah.

The wilderness group gathered at the Utah Capitol Wednesday with hunters, fishermen and others to protest what they call a land grab.

At issue is legislation signed by Herbert that gives the federal government until 2014 to relinquish control of public lands in Utah. The Utah Legislature authorized a lawsuit if the federal government doesn’t comply.

Herbert was not on hand Wednesday to accept the petition. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press for comment.

The threatened takeover sets up a battle over nearly 4,700 square miles of land in Utah.

"Don’t mess with our public lands," said Jack Nelson, an 82-year-old outdoorsman and one of the founders of the Utah chapter of Trout Unlimited. "These are our lands and should not be sold off or taken from us."

Many states have no significant federal lands, while other states are lucky to have a national park. Utah has five national parks, seven national monuments and 33 federal wilderness areas, along with extensive national forests.

"If you want to go camping in New Jersey, it’s pretty hard," said Laurel Legate, a Salt Lake City school teacher. "Utah is special."

Herbert has said the state isn’t threatening to take over national parks or the monuments or wilderness areas.

The Transfer of Public Lands Act excludes those areas — or most of them — from a state takeover. The legislation fails to make an exception for the 3,100-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It’s unclear if legislators intended to force its transfer to the state.

The sponsor of the act, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, didn’t immediately return a message Wednesday from the AP.

Ivory’s bill also leaves the Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon national recreation areas open to a takeover.

"It’s bad for Utah business. It’s bad for us," said Dwight Butler, who has operated Wasatch Touring, an outdoor specialty store in Salt Lake City, for 40 years. "Our public lands are a powerful calling card."

Herbert has said Utah could raise more money for public education by selling or making more use of federal lands, but "I just don’t buy it," said Legate, the schoolteacher.

Legate said the takeover effort will surely fail, wasting "taxpayer money that would go to kids, just so our governor can make a point."

The Legislature’s own attorneys warned a lawsuit would be struck down as unconstitutional. Utah lawmakers are pushing ahead anyway.

Federal lands make up about two-thirds of Utah. Nevada is the only other Western state with a higher percentage of federal lands.

"Gov. Herbert launched an unprecedented attack on our public Lands," said Mathew Gross, a spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Some of these lands will be sold outright to the highest bidder. ... His effort to grab public lands is a bad idea that will cost us a lot."

Sign up for e-mail news updates.