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Hundreds of outdoor industry representatives and their supporters took to the streets Thursday for a rush-hour hike to the Utah Capitol, celebrating the crucial role public lands play in their livelihoods and urging the state's leaders to lay off what critics say is an attack on those lands.
"I believe the biggest danger to our united, overwhelming support for public lands is to allow others to paint this cynically as a partisan issue. It is not. And we cannot allow that to happen," REI CEO Jerry Stritzke told the boisterous throngs of outdoor enthusiasts who see a grave threat in policies coming from Washington. "We cannot allow ourselves to fall into that trap, because public lands are for all."
"We should all be proud to be part of an industry that helps keep more than 7 million Americans in work. An industry that makes people in this country healthier and happier," he said. "We are building a sustainable economy for the future health of America. Making towns across the country stronger."
Industry groups launched the "This Land Is Our Land" rally from the Salt Palace Convention Center, where the Outdoor Retailer trade show is holding what may be its final Salt Lake City edition. The massive twice-a-year show is decamping for Denver after a 22-year run that is ending amid an acrimonious argument over Utah leaders' drive to reverse the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national-monument designations.
While motorists stuck on North Temple were not likely having fun, the march had more of festival tone than that of a protest, and many speakers heaped praise on Utah for hosting the convention during a period of immense growth.
One group, dressed as eagles, carried signs that read, "Trees are people too"; another chanted, "Keep your tiny hands off our public lands," a mocking reference to President Donald Trump's high regard for his hand size.
Those on the dais included Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee Chairman Shaun Chapoose, climber Conrad Anker, Boulder restaurateur Blake Spalding, Outdoor Industry Association Director Amy Roberts and Tom Adams, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation.
"Most of the land you are talking about was taken," Chapoose said. American Indians "weren't involved, and here you sit with your public lands and an attempt to take it without your involvement. What I hope we can teach you is you need to speak up."
Chapoose was a key figure in the successful campaign to persuade President Barack Obama to designate Bears Ears and now defends the monument from Utah's campaign to erase it. State leaders describe the monument as a land grab to set aside a reserve for wealthy patrons of sports provisioned by the very companies represented at the rally.
But Chapoose pointed out that the sacred lands surrounding Bears Ears Buttes were never Utah's.
"You also have to understand that the land doesn't belong to none of us. Our mentality is we are caretakers of it for the generations to come," he told the people gathered on the Capitol's south lawn and steps. "You as citizens who participate in rock climbing or mountain biking, whatever your endeavor is, need to remember one of the rules we had as native people: Never take from it more than you need. Leave it in better condition than when you found it. There is only one Earth. Unless you have a spaceship, you better take care of what you've got."
At his monthly news conference Thursday morning, Gov. Gary Herbert lamented the trade show's exit from Utah, blaming the schism on what he believes is an unfair characterization of the state's attitude toward public lands.
"I think this has been more about political rhetoric and politics, and less about substance and about good policy," he said. "I think the state of Utah by actual deed shows that we do care about the public lands. We have enhanced the public lands. We spend more on conservation efforts in Utah than any other state in the Intermountain West."
Regardless of what money Utah spends, outdoor industry leaders are far more concerned about the state's entrenched policy direction that calls for seizing federal lands, establishing roads on obscure routes across scenic backcountry, erasing national monuments, opposing wilderness designations and promoting extractive industries in places with strong recreational values.
Biskupski, who hails from Minnesota, said Utah owes its economic vitality to its wealth of scenic lands, which has drawn people from all over the country to call the state home.
"Salt Lake City is and always will be the outdoor recreation capital of America," Biskupski said.
Speakers emphasized that public lands should unite Americans from every ideological corner because broad access to Western landscapes is something that defines the character of the United States.
Anker, a University of Utah graduate who has intimate knowledge of Wasatch backcountry, called out Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in whose hands rests the fates of two dozen large monuments. Trump is expected to follow Zinke's recommendation.
As a Montanan like Zinke, Anker called on the official to honor the legacy of President Teddy Roosevelt by respecting the Bears Ears designation, which he called an important addition to the nation's network of conservation lands. Zinke, he said, should connect with tribes the way Roosevelt camped with John Muir in Yosemite a century ago to learn the mysteries of the deep gorge glaciers cut through the Sierra Nevada.
"It's something we can all share," Anker said. "Camping out with elders and tribal leaders, that's bipartisanship. It's what makes democracy work."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8713.