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Utah's claim to public lands is a "radical" idea that poses a "direct threat" to the nation's multi-billion-dollar outdoor industry, according to former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
He argued thatUtah Gov. Gary Herbert should pull the plug on the state's campaign to take back federal lands within its borders, calling it a "misguided effort" and "a huge mistake."
"The sponsors of this are fronting for the oil and gas, coal and tar sands industry," he said Thursday in a speech at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City.
"Public lands belong to all Americans," he added. "They are used for energy production right now in a careful, responsible way. But for whatever reason, Utah politicians are saying we have to do it faster and do more, cast off environmental regulations and put all our heritage at risk."
Utah's governor pushed back, taking direct shots at Babbitt for his role in the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"The governor strongly disagrees with Secretary Babbitt's conclusions and characterizations regarding the transfer of public lands effort," said spokesman Marty Carpenter. "While in office, Secretary Babbitt actively sought to reduce multiple use of and access to our public lands."
Babbitt's speech to the outdoor retailers comes in the midst of Utah's campaign to force the handover of 31 million acres of public lands. State leaders have set aside $2 million for the fight and plan to hire a private legal firm to push the issue.
It also follows a much-publicized falling out in 2012 between Herbert and Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf, who wrote a newspaper op-ed chastising the governor for his role in the public lands campaign. Metcalf, an outdoor industry leader, ended up resigning from the state's Ski and Snowboard Industry Working Group.
In August of that year, the outdoor recreation industry called on Utah to adopt a more inclusive approach to managing public lands.
The retailers' interest in the issue has not waned in the ensuing years. At a panel discussion Wednesday, an audience peppered state recreation leaders and economists with questions about a state-commissioned report released in December that concluded Utah could make money managing federal lands.
Babbitt cautioned Westerners Thursday against dismissing today's land transfer movement as just another retread of past Sagebrush Rebellions.
"This is different," Babbitt said. "The money is coming nationally, from the fossil fuel industry, and married to the ideology that is being pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council and others, who are wrapping this into broad-scale attack against the federal government."
A former Arizona governor who served in the Clinton administration in the 1990s, Babbitt played a key role setting aside the Grand Staircase monument, the crown jewel of what became the National Landscape Conservation System. The creation of the 1.9 million-acre preserve in Kane and Garfield counties is perhaps the biggest sticking point now energizing Utah's lands-transfer movement.
The pushback from the monument designation has taught federal officials that conservation initiatives should involve local communities, Babbitt said. He singled out southeastern Utah's Cedar Mesa as another place that is worthy of federal protection.
Nowhere else in America is there such a high density of unprotected cultural resources as in the scenic highlands west of Blanding, where Ancestral Puebloans once thrived 1,000 years ago. The mesa is the central piece of national monument proposals being pursued by three different groups.
But designations, made by the president under the Antiquities Act, have a contentious history in Utah.
After nearly two decades, local and state leaders still consider the Grand Staircase a federal "land grab" that killed hopes of a major coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau and continues to limit grazing and other uses that sustain rural economies.
"Efforts like this have created a serious imbalance in the administration and use of our public lands," Herbert spokesman Carpenter said. "The objective of the transfer of public lands effort is to restore balance to the management of our public lands.
"State management of our public lands will not only help preserve the cultural heritage and scenic beauty of our state," he added, "but also ensure appropriate public access and multiple use."
In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed HB148, known as the Transfer of Public Lands Act, demanding title to most of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service about 31 million acres in all, including the Grand Staircase.
State leaders have since been brainstorming ways to accomplish their ambitious goal over the objections of conservationists, who see it as a charade.
The deadline for federal acreage to be handed over quietly passed last month and, to the surprise of no one, the federal government declined to comply.
Undaunted and armed with a $2 million war chest, Utah's quest is now entering political and legal arenas. The state plans to hire an outside attorney to help craft legal strategies to compel the feds to give up the land, lobby Congress and rally other Western states to the cause.
This legislative session Sen. Jim Dabakis, a vocal critic of the land-transfer movement, intends to introduce a bill aimed at a quick legal solution to the controversy.
"The problem is there have been two alpha dogs at the table," said Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat. "We'll never get a negotiated resolution until we figure out who the alpha dog is."
His bill would direct Attorney General Sean Reyes to file a case of original jurisdiction with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to decide whether Utah has the right to "take back" federal lands within its borders.
Dabakis believes Utah has no legal standing to make such a demand, but he contends direction from the Supreme Court would put the costly debate to rest and pave the way to more lasting solutions to Utah's public lands battles.
Conservationists say that if Utah prevails, it would set a terrible precedent.
Such a move would dismantle the BLM in Utah and eliminate its federal wildlife refuges and 90 percent of its national forests, Babbitt said at an outdoor industry breakfast hosted by the Conservation Alliance.
"Our federal lands are such a gift to the American people and we are lucky to have that natural heritage," said alliance director John Sterling. "We need to do whatever we can to preserve that, whether it's designating it as wilderness, or making sure they maintain the uniform management regime the federal government provides."