Here’s the thing about crazy ideas: they look even crazier when exposed to public scrutiny.

That’s what Gov. Gary Herbert is learning from his radical assault on Utah’s public lands.  The governor has pretty much declared war on the United States, public lands and, most especially, redrock wilderness.  It all sounds like a lunatic echo of “The Mouse that Roared.”  But it is real.

You’ll recall that there are two fronts in Gov. Herbert’s little war.  The first is the Transfer of Public Lands Act (HB 148), a nifty little travesty the governor signed into law in March.  It modestly demands that the U.S. hand over to the state 30 million acres of public lands the federal government manages in Utah.

The second front is in the courtroom.  In May, the governor’s lawyers filed 22 lawsuits against the United States, seeking control of more than 10,000 “roads” crossing designated wilderness, national parks and national monuments, and public lands generally (see details in “The Road to Hell is Paved,” p. 12).

If successful on either front, the governor’s land grab would radically reshape a century of public land management and protection.  It would radically reshape Utah, too, opening up millions of acres of public land in the state (including wilderness study areas and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument) to oil and gas drilling, coal and potash mining, tar sands strip mining, off-road vehicle abuse, and even private ownership and development.

It’s a vision of Utah’s future that looks nothing like the present and nothing like the past.  And people are beginning to notice.

SUWA’s statewide media campaign educates Utah citizens about Gov. Herbert’s attack on our federal public lands. Photo by Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Publicly, Herbert on the Defensive
In July, SUWA launched a statewide media campaign designed to raise awareness among Utah citizens about the drastic effect that Herbert’s plans would have upon taxes and our quality of life in Utah.

The campaign uses billboards along the Wasatch Front and in selected towns elsewhere in Utah, and radio and targeted online ads.  It emphasizes the unavoidable fact that Herbert’s land grab would cost Utah taxpayers money—lots of money—and urges Utah citizens to contact the governor directly to tell him to drop his bad idea.  We augmented this media work by knocking on the doors of 25,000 Utahns to tell them what their governor is up to and what it means for the state’s taxpayers and for the state itself.

The immediate result of the campaign was overwhelming.  Hundreds of concerned Utahns called Herbert’s office in opposition; thousands signed postcards and a petition.  When outdoor enthusiasts, business owners and educators gathered at the Capitol to voice their opposition to Herbert’s land grab, we delivered those signatures to the Governor’s office.

If the public pressure weren’t enough, Herbert has also felt heat privately from industry leaders. Frank Hugelmeyer, head of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), used an August meeting with Herbert to voice his frustration over Utah’s public land policies.  He said the policies threaten to destabilize the public lands infrastructure upon which so much of Utah’s outdoor and tourism industries rely.

In an editorial, the Salt Lake Tribune agreed with the OIA’s position.  The Tribune pointed out that “Republican lawmakers consistently bend over for the extraction industries, despite the economic roller-coaster they bring to areas of the state long plagued by boom-bust cycles; the negative effect on land, water, wildlife habitat and air; and the fact that outdoor recreation, which brings clean jobs and sustainable dollars from tourism, is more important to the state’s future.”

Middle school teacher Laurel Legate challenges Gov. Herbert’s implication that public lands must be sacrificed to fund education. Photo by Kathlene Audette/SUWA.

Offensive Ideas Produce Defensive Squirming
This pressure has so far produced mainly lip service, but enough of it to suggest the governor is smarting a bit from the heat.  He remains obsessed with his grandiose plan but is not oblivious to public perception.

In September, Alan Matheson, the governor’s senior environmental advisor, took to the pages of The Deseret News to argue that the governor’s federal land grab was an attempt to seek “a balanced public lands policy.”

“The federal land management system, like the land itself, is in disrepair,”  Matheson complained in his op-ed.  He also lamented that federal land management is driven by “endless, expensive lawsuits . . .” (The governor’s man, remember, offered this disingenuous critique just months after Herbert filed his monster road claim litigation against the United States.)  Matheson didn’t even to try to explain how a demand for federal surrender of over 30 million acres of public lands fits with the noble notion of a “balanced approach.”

The governor sent Matheson to his word processor not to repudiate the crazy road claim/land grab schemes but to soften the public’s perception of them.  View it as ramped-up public relations, not revised public policy.  The governor and other Utah politicians are as committed as ever to their dangerous ideas, including gaining control of Utah’s federal public lands by the deadline set in the noxious HB 148—January 1, 2015.  In November, the Utah state legislature is expected to start work on a bill to establish a state commission charged with working through the logistics of transferring title of public lands from the federal government to the state.

But Wait, There’s More . . . and Worse
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has scrambled onto the public lands teacart with an amendment to Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) “Sportsmen’s Heritage Act.”  Hatch’s amendment directs the federal government to surrender all public lands in Utah to state control by December 2014—including national parks and wilderness areas.  In that, Hatch’s approach is even more radical than the legislation the governor signed.  With the exception of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, HB 148 would leave the national parks in Utah under federal management.

There is no sign, either, that Herbert has come to his senses regarding the 22 right-of-way lawsuits; the court cases are moving along.  SUWA and its partners are moving to intervene in all the cases to make sure our conservation interests are protected.  The federal government is holding closed-door meetings with the state to prioritize which cases and which claims get litigated.  It is critical for us to be part of those discussions (stay tuned for
further updates).

Author/journalist Timothy Egan wrote recently in the New York Times about Gov. Herbert’s fantasies of empire.  “Handing over millions of acres of public land has long been a dream borne on the vapors of single-malt Scotch sipped inside trophy homes in the 1 percent ZIP codes of the West,” Egan said.

But the dream of a few is a nightmare for those of us who love Utah and the wildness of its public lands.  And that brings us to another thing about crazy ideas, at least in the current political climate: what was too crazy to be real a few years ago seems frighteningly possible today.  We are taking all this with deadly seriousness and working on all fronts to fight these dangerous attempts to steal the federal public lands in Utah that rightfully belong to all Americans.

Thanks to you, we’ve struck a blow.  There is much more to do.

—Mathew Gross

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Autumn/Winter 2012 issue)