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Gov. Gary Herbert is "grandstanding" by suing the federal government and risking the state's outdoor recreation industry in the process, Democratic challenger Peter Cooke said Tuesday.
In a news conference at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Cooke said the governor and legislators are wasting state tax dollars on what he views as an unconstitutional reach for control of 22 million acres, when he should be negotiating for better access according to a reasoned plan. The governor, he said, has embraced symbolic lawsuits instead of making a case for developing appropriate lands and preserving others.
"It's just shooting from the hip and saying, 'We'll just sue the federal government on everything,' " Cooke said.
The legal fight won't save schools by providing state development funds, as proponents say, Cooke insisted. What schools really need is priority in the state budget, he said.
"In this one issue alone which affects Utah lands and Utah schools we have grandstanding strategies, instead of leadership," he said.
Herbert has said Utah's schools depend on reasonable development of lands in the state, and on Tuesday his campaign spokesman said the legislation he signed does allow for negotiation before any court battles.
"In 1894, the state's enabling act said we get the lands back," spokesman Marty Carpenter said, "and that has not come to fruition."
Besides signing HB148, a state law threatening court action if the U.S. does not cede to the state most federal lands outside of parks and wilderness areas, the governor has backed legal challenges to gain control over disputed transportation routes on federal lands.
An outdoor retailers association that hosts Utah's biggest trade show in Salt Lake City twice a year has recoiled at the state's efforts, and Cooke said the governor's disregard for them risks losing both their $40 million annual economic contribution and the thousands of jobs that federal recreation areas support. He noted that federal funds aided this year's wildfire-fighting efforts.
Cooke said if elected he would appoint a blue-ribbion commission to recommend logical places for energy and other developments, so he could negotiate with federal land managers with a blueprint. He said he also would assign the commission to identify lands appropriate for new wilderness designations.
"Utahns need to know that wilderness and recreation areas have my protection," he said. "They will know that I intend to preserve the natural beauty of our state."
Carpenter said Herbert understands the need to protect unique landscapes and is willing to talk to groups about how best to achieve that.
"The governor strongly supports protecting Utah's wilderness," he said. "He understands Utah's unique natural beauty does give us an advantage over other states."
On energy, Cooke said he would support tax credits to advance renewable energy sources something Herbert has not done.