SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert may be talking tough about standing up to the federal government, but he's stopping short of calling for an all-out battle.
"I'm going to continue to reach out," Herbert said last week during his monthly news conference broadcast on KUED Channel 7. "I'm going to continue to try to work together."
The governor said he plans to take up his concerns about the new "wild lands" policy — widely seen in the West as a land grab — with the author, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, next month in Washington.
Herbert said his latest trip east will be another attempt to reach out to the federal government, even though he felt "we kind of got knifed in the back a little bit with a new public lands policy that we didn't even have a change to comment on."
Still, the governor remains optimistic.
"We'll get through it. I'm confident," Herbert said. "But we're not going to sit back and not make our concerns known. That's what I did in the State of the State."
In his State of the State speech Wednesday, Herbert declared to Washington, D.C., that Utah is "a state, not a colony" and would "not stand idly by" while the federal government usurps its rights.
Herbert's surprisingly strong statement earned a standing ovation from lawmakers gathered in the House chambers to hear his annual address, which highlighted what he called Utah's right to self-determination.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the governor was playing to the conservatives in the audience on the Hill and at home.
"He was, to a certain extent, pandering to the group to make the point we don't want the federal government to push us around," Burbank said. "I don't know how much substance there will be to that."
Where the governor can have the most influence, Burbank said, is in establishing a relationship with authorities in the nation's capitol and make sure they understand Utah's concerns.
Utahns realize Herbert only has so much sway with the federal government, Burbank said. "While the governor has made his position clear, he's still the governor and not the president," he said. "There's limited things he can do. I think voters recognize that."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said Herbert will be a "lone voice" on his trip to Washington.
"He'll talk tough," Jenkins said. "But what does that mean? You can talk as much as you want, but the guy with the biggest stick will end up winning the whole thing."
In past sessions, lawmakers have expressed their frustration with the federal government through resolutions known as "message bills." Those attempts to send a states rights message to Washington, however, have often been all but ignored.
Even so, similar bills are already starting to surface.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, a leader of the conservative Patrick Henry Caucus, said he is drafting a bill that would make any future public lands designations by the federal government "null and void" and require local law enforcement to maintain access.
The governor said that's not the approach he would take.
"I understand the passion and I understand the frustration that's developed," Herbert said, noting the federal government has "kind of a deaf ear and probably an unsympathetic heart."
The governor said Wimmer's proposal is telling the federal government "if you're not going to talk to us about it, we'll put up some barriers to fight you. … I don't think that's the right way to go about it."
Wimmer said he and the governor simply have different approaches. He said he supports Herbert continuing to talk with federal authorities, "but we should not capitulate and be their lapdog."
Herbert's declaration that Utah is not a colony energized the conservative caucus, Wimmer said, "and made us more resolute."
The governor said he wasn't necessarily encouraging lawmakers to take on the federal government.
"It depends on what the push-back is," Herbert said, citing health care mandates as an example of an area where their help might be welcomed.
Utah will always have three options in dealing with Washington, he said.
"We can negotiate, we can legislate and then we can litigate. All three arrows are alive and well in the quiver."