WASHINGTON -- Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told a congressional subcommittee on Tuesday his state does a better job than U.S. land managers and has a bigger stake than the bureaucrats in protecting the natural resources and rugged beauty that drives Utah's outdoor recreation and tourism industry.
"No one understands state challenges and demographics better than the people who reside and govern there," said Herbert, chairman of the Western Governors' Association.
"No one is more committed to the most effective use of limited resources for the best possible outcome, for both our lands and our citizens, than those who will directly live with the consequences of those decisions," the Republican said in testimony before a House Natural Resources subcommittee examining the role of state and federal governments in managing national parks, forests and public rangelands.
Herbert said Utah and many other western states do a far better job than the feds on a host of environmental fronts, from thinning unhealthy forests at risk of catastrophic wildfire, to protecting sage grouse from Colorado through the Great Basin, the Southwest and into the Pacific Northwest.
"Sadly, we have strayed far from this vision of states as independent and robust policy innovators," he told the panel.
Of Utah's 54 million acres, roughly two-thirds are owned or managed by the federal government, about 21 percent privately owned and about 10 percent owned by the state, he said.
"I understand that the citizens of the rest of this great nation have an interest in the natural resources found within Utah and the rest of the West," he said.
But "the reality is that people don't flock to Utah from all over the world because its lands are federally managed. They flock to Utah because Utah lands are unique, precious and visually and even spiritually stunning," he said.
"These lands will be just as precious and valued if they are managed by state or local entities," he said.
Herbert signed legislation last year giving 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, the lone witness invited to testify before the subcommittee on Monday, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the subcommittee, have been especially critical of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to list the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species and designate 1.7 million acres in Colorado and Utah as critical habitat.
Biologists believe the bird has lost 90 percent of its historic habitat and now exists in only seven distinct populations. Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, which was among petitioners for the listing, said habitat fragmentation spurred by increased roads and other human activity has been identified as a key factor compromising the bird's ability to survive.
"The Gunnison sage grouse might finally get the protection it deserves," said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, another petitioner. "Federal listing will buttress efforts to conserve the species."
Bishop said Monday that Herbert's testimony underscores the need to examine redundancies in state and federal land management programs, especially in times of tight budgets.
"If we want to get serious about responsible development of our resources, better land management practices, and real recovery of wildlife species, we ought to be looking more to the states for solutions and not to federal bureaucrats in Washington," he said.