SALT LAKE CITY — A public school teacher, a business owner and a hunting enthusiast were among residents Wednesday who staged a rally at the Capitol urging Gov. Gary Herbert to withdraw his efforts to gain control of federal lands.
Organized by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the rally was followed by the delivery of more than 5,400 signatures on a petition and postcards to Herbert's office to voice opposition to what they characterize as a "land grab" by the governor.
"I am passionate about having access to our national forests," said Jack Nelson, who sat in his wheelchair and detailed the virtues of conserving public lands. "As Americans, we are part owners of our national forests."
Nelson described himself as an outdoor enthusiast of more than 60 years who was dismayed at the lack of public hunting opportunities available in Texas, compared with Utah.
His friend, he said, had a deer carcass in his vehicle and explained to Nelson he had to pay for the privilege of hunting on private land.
Nelson, in contrast, said he can go anywhere that public lands allow hunting in Utah, which presents a vast landscape of opportunity.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others at the event are opposed to the state's initiation of lawsuits against the federal government to assert ownership of disputed roads under what is known as the RS2477 statute.
Control over rights of way to thousands of roads in Utah has been in contention for decades, and Herbert has authorized litigation in an attempt to resolve claims to an estimated 12,000 roads, routes or trails in Utah established in the Civil War era.
That lawsuit is a part of public lands policy that also includes legislation the governor signed into law this year demanding that the federal government relinquish title to lands conservative lawmakers say was promised to Utah at statehood.
Ally Isom, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said the governor's efforts have been mischaracterized. The measure calls for significant tracts of public land to remain under federal control and protection, including national parks, national monuments, state parks and congressionally designated wilderness, she added.
"The governor fully recognizes and agrees there must be a balanced approach that protects our beautiful landscapes, outdoor recreation and responsible energy development," Isom said.
She stressed, too, that the lawsuit over rights-of-way to roads is not "frivolous."
"This is about a constructive, reasonable dialog with the federal government about how Utahns can have greater say over how lands within the state are managed," Isom said.
The wilderness alliance and its supporters, however, assert that wresting control of those federal lands would be an environmental nightmare, on top of a costly legal battle the state can ill afford.
Citing Utah's "dramatic" landscapes of mountains, rivers and deserts, business owner Dwight Butler urged Herbert to abandon his "all or nothing rhetoric" and instead pursue the role of mediator with the federal government.
"Our public lands are a powerful calling card that will continue to attract businesses, people and jobs," said Butler, an owner and manager of Wasatch Touring.