SALT LAKE CITY — A clearly frustrated Gov. Gary Herbert was joined by other top Utah officials Friday, taking the head of the national Bureau of Land Management to task over a new order directing how "wild lands" designations are made.
“The question is how many times are you going to inventory (public lands). When is enough enough?” Herbert asked Bob Abbey, who was in Utah to meet with members of governor's Balanced Resources Council.
Herbert said he was dismayed and caught off guard in December when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the directive for state BLM offices to begin a reassessment of public lands within its purview — specifically to see if they qualify as "wild" and thus meriting protections.
"We were kind of caught blind on this. We have tried to be open and transparent and I think that ought to be the principle," Herbert said, adding that "if we somehow have to do it in the shadows then it is probably not the right thing to do."
Herbert's remarks drew loud applause, whistles and cheers, as did those of Lt. Gov. Greg Bell who said Salazar's order "flips the whole process on its head."
Critics say the federal order conflicts with a 2003 settlement agreement between the Interior Department and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt over such designations and undercuts the authority of Congress.
Resource Management Plans approved in 2008 are now being called into question, Bell stressed, and such ambiguity will give rise to new lawsuits over how the land is managed.
Abbey said the re-inventory of the lands would determine if those original management plans were crafted appropriately or if revisions need to be made.
"This action was not taken in the shadows," Abbey said, pointing out that such authority has been exercised under previous administrations.
Hundreds of people showed up at the Senate Building to hear Abbey and either express their concern over Salazar's actions or their delight. Dueling stickers underscored the polarization that can come with how public lands are managed, with supporters of Salazar's decision wearing yellow "Thank You" stickers and detractors sporting red labels that urged, "Stop the land grab."
The room was so packed the "overflow" crowd was directed to another meeting area to listen in. State highway patrol officers kept vigil in case tempers got out of hand.
While Abbey handled the questioning with diplomacy and reasoned answers, he was literally "tripped up," during his entrance into the meeting, falling as he made his way around the council seating.
"I don't normally make an entrance like I did today," he said, asking the cameraman to be sure to share footage with his colleagues back in DC.
Ironically, the Governor's Council on Balanced Resources – which stresses collaboration and cooperation — titled a bit after one member, Pat Shea, stormed out of the room. Shea, who held Abbey's post under the Clinton Administration, grabbed his belongings and walked out of the packed room after former U.S. Congressman Jim Hansen was allowed to speak by the council chairman.
Shea had objected to the request, saying the event should stick to the protocol of allowing only council members and the governor and lieutenant governor to speak.
Hansen, who served 22 years on the House Natural Resources Committee and was its chairman, had his own blunt assessment to make.
He predicted in no uncertain terms that the order would be litigated endlessly because it creates "fake" wilderness.
A primary concern voiced at the meeting is that the order will undercut any land use planning efforts — and compromises — that have been on the drafting table addressing wilderness issues in a county-by-county approach.
Kathleen Clarke, a former head of the Utah BLM, said such centralized efforts that resulted in the Washington County Lands bill passed by Congress are jeopardized by an order that will turn Utah's economy "flat on its face."
"There is no certainty and we will see industry flee this state," she said.
Countering those dire predictions were the voices of those on the other side of the proverbial land management fence, most notably the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance which praised Salazar's action.
In a press conference preceding Abbey's meeting with the council, the environmental advocacy group said Salazar's order gives needed protections to millions of acres of wilderness-quality land in the West and rightly corrects the "No More Wilderness Policy" brokered in the 2003 settlement.
"As a result of the 2003 Utah agreement, well-known western icons were at risk from oil and gas drilling and rampant off-road vehicle abuse," including Utah's redrock canyons.