Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Interest groups affecting legislation and Utah lands

Published: Sunday, July 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Protesters demonstrate outside of Grand America Hotel where the ALEC Convention is being heldThursday, July 26, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

The political campaigns in Utah are a little slow right now as voters are more focused on vacations than what the candidates are saying. But a few issues are adding to the summer heat.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is hammering Gov. Gary Herbert in media ads for supporting legislation that would shift control of some federal lands to the state. Is the criticism fair, and is it damaging Herbert's political future?

Pignanelli: "Publicity can be terrible. But only if you don't have any." — Jane Russell. If SUWA's goal with the full-throttled media campaign was to irritate Gov. Herbert — they succeeded. But they have accomplished little else because their public relations advisers do not understand Utah's unusual relationship with the federal government. Hating the "feds" is part of our cultural psyche (i.e., "The Utah war," Fort Douglas cannon trained on Brigham Young's house, etc.) Gov. Scott Matheson (remember … he was a Democrat) was popular for his "Sagebrush Rebellion" effort to diminish national hegemony of Utah lands. Recent polls indicate over two-thirds of Utahns support efforts to release federal control of lands (but the same number do not want to pay lawyers $3 million for the fight). Thus, hammering Herbert on this issue may bolster his popularity. SUWA should consider using this message: "Warning, rich liberals like Robert Redford and Ted Turner will buy and control Utah lands if federal power is relinquished." That would capture attention.

Webb: SUWA is a fringe, extremist environmental group that is, once again, living up to its radical image. It is more interested in raising money from rich, na?e, liberal donors than in solving public lands issues.

I have a great deal of respect for mainstream environmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society and others. They love the land and wild places, as do I, but they engage local citizens, leaders and all stakeholders, and they support balanced, collaborative solutions that preserve the environment while recognizing the need for jobs, careful energy development and traditional, responsible, land uses like ranching and farming.

The reality is that Utah is at a significant financial disadvantage compared to most states because the federal government owns most of the land. Some of those lands (but not national parks, monuments, wilderness areas, etc.) could prudently and sensibly be turned over to state control, and a portion could even be sold into private ownership. But Utah's governor and Legislature fully understand that use of public lands for wilderness, sightseeing, hiking, hunting, fishing, ORVing, etc. is sacrosanct to hundreds of thousands of Utahns. They're not going to do anything to diminish those experiences.

Clearly, balanced, common-sense solutions exist that protect the environment and preserve public lands activities, while developing the economy and generating more revenue for our school children. Utah is a big place. Just take a drive out in the west desert. SUWA's divisive, ham-handed, simplistic attacks don't get us any closer to solutions.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, just held its 2012 national convention in Utah. Watchdog groups criticize ALEC for giving corporate interests access to state lawmakers in closed meetings. Is ALEC a bad organization that unduly influences legislators?

Pignanelli: Rumors are circulating that several longtime corporate sponsors of ALEC received a visit from well-funded left-wing organizations. Apparently, they received a threat in these meetings: Contribute to the ALEC event in Salt Lake and you will suffer a blistering attack in key market areas, disparaging your discriminatory practices. The tactic worked and spooked many high profile corporations, who withdrew sponsorship. What happened last week may cause a chain reaction where left- and right-wing activists ratchet up attacks on corporate funders and participants in other associations of elected officials (yes, leftist versions exist). The nation's partisan slugfest has a new front.

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