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Of all the nutty ideas floating around these parts of late — procuring an aircraft carrier (Wyoming), pets as wolf bait (Idaho), and Yellowstone bison as bioterrorists (Montana) — none compares to Utah's on the incredulity meter.

Seems the Beehive State is abuzz about its effort to put a fresh coat of paint on a failed old idea: seizing control of all public lands other than national parks, wilderness areas, military bases and Indian reservations.

Yes, seriously.

Alas, unlike the seasonal silliness in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, this Utah land grab has some traction. The Legislature passed a bill asserting eminent domain over public lands — our lands — and Gov. Gary Herbert signed it, vowing to sue if 30 million acres aren't handed over by 2015.

Federal land managers are shrugging off Utah's chest thumping as little more than a tea party tent revival of the failed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Like many legal scholars, they think the state will be laughed out of court.

Yet, the very idea should have us quaking in our hiking shoes, hunting boots and waders. Ranchers, outfitters, guides and other small-business owners should be coalescing in alarm.

After all, parallel conversations are taking place across the West as politicians plot to mortgage our cultural heritage and descendants' quality of life for boom-and-bust riches. Their motive? So special interests can mine, drill, pave and bulldoze without having to navigate such pesky matters as clean air, clean water and other health safeguards.

And the land-grab effort isn't limited to shortsighted state representatives with visions of lobbyist cash dancing in their heads. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney "doesn't know what the purpose is" of public lands and presumably would toss them into an Etch-A-Sketch. Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida has even floated the idea of selling national parks to private interests.

Clearly, a primer is in order here.

Public lands provide us with clean water, clean air and essential wildlife habitat. Millions of Americans hunt, fish, hike, camp, ride, run, ski, pedal, photograph, explore or simply find solitude in a rapidly shrinking world on public lands. They provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in economic impact for rural communities.

Above all, they are the embodiment of American freedom and individualism — places where anyone can go, regardless of race, creed, color or stock portfolio. Our 750 million acres of public land, much of it established more than a century ago by forefathers with wisdom and vision, set our nation apart.

If you think wilderness locks up land, wait until you are met by barbed wire, gates, padlocks, corporate signage and no-hunting signs. If you think government programs are European-izing this nation, wait until you have to pay a premium to hunt or fish where your grandparents once walked for free.

Do the simple math: More people plus less public land equal less access and more crowds on the few equal-opportunity landscapes we have left. All of which leads to more rules, regulations and cost for the average American.

Most of us recognize the economic, ecological and spiritual value of public lands. A whopping 93 percent of Colorado voters recently polled see them as essential to the state's overall health. It makes you wonder who it is that politicians favoring land grabs truly represent.

Sell our public lands? For anyone who thinks that nutty idea will fly on Main Street America, I've got an aircraft carrier on Yellowstone Lake to sell you.

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at