SALT LAKE CITY — The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is on the attack, launching a high-profile campaign against Gov. Gary Herbert over his so-called public lands "grab."
The environmental group took out full-page advertisements in both of Salt Lake City's daily newspapers last week and plans to air radio spots and go door-to-door to spread its anti-Herbert message.
Referencing HB148 sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the ad says Herbert signed legislation requiring the federal government to hand over more than 30 million acres it manages in Utah.
"But how could Utah afford to manage those lands?" the ad asks. "Right now, the state government can barely afford to keep our state parks open."
Instead of focusing on messages such as preservation or conservation of the land, SUWA asserts such an action would be a financial catastrophe that residents can ill afford.
"Gov. Herbert's efforts to take over public lands would be incredibly expensive for the state of Utah, both environmentally and economically," said Scott Groene, SUWA's director. "We have faith that when Utahns know the facts, they will oppose his land grab."
Groene said the public campaign is also being spurred by lawsuits the state filed earlier this summer against the federal government seeking control of RS2477 or Civil War-era routes and roads, an estimated 12,000 of them.
"(Herbert) has filed 22 lawsuits in front of eight federal judges. It seems serious," Groene said. "He is ready to throw a mountain of public money at it. And we are taking it very seriously."
This latest dust-up adds another dimension to what has become an increasingly active and vitriolic war of words and legal actions over what should — or should not happen — on federal lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.
From sage grouse protections, the RS2477 battle and angst over rumored monument designations, Herbert has thrust himself front and center into the fray, stressing repeatedly that conservation of public lands and responsible development are not mutually exclusive and local control is best.
But Groene said Herbert's decisions go far beyond what other gubernatorial leaders are doing throughout the West.
"Gov. Herbert's actions to date have been far more radical than what has been taken by any other Western state. You see the issue of (RS2477) pop up here and there across the West, but nothing comparable to the lawsuits in Utah."
Groene said the scope of the state's actions under Herbert's purview constitute one of the most "serious threats Utah wilderness has faced in years. The only thing that is clear is that the state will spend millions and millions of dollars to benefit a small group of anti-federal constituents."
Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, dismissed the assertions of the environmental group.
"It's the political campaign season, so it is no surprise when special interest groups make political statements for their self-serving purposes. It's nothing more than political grandstanding," she said. "Neither their conduct nor their statements will weaken the governor's commitment to work through his Balanced Resource Council to make meaningful progress."
Ivory, the architect of HB148, said SUWA's criticism of Herbert's public lands policies comes from one small faction.
"SUWA is out to raise money. It is the same throughout time. You try to find a boogeyman and make it as scary as possible and raise as much money as possible so you have a reason for being."
He added that the mainstream public is fed up with over-restrictive federal ownership of lands that gives no concessions to local sentiments, and points to the American Lands Council, a group that grew out what he says is a groundswell of support for Western states to reclaim the federal lands promised to them.
"Because these things are now getting so personal, it's come down to the health, safety and welfare of local communities, the counties and the state," he said. "You either stand up for those rights or allow these arbitrary national policies to negatively impact the health, safety and welfare of these communities going forward."
Ivory said precedent exists for states to have that federal land returned, citing a successful effort by Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and several others in 1828.
"They all got together and sent petition after petition after petition to the federal government saying, 'You are not disposing of our lands like you promised.'"
He said the federal government now controls only about 4 percent of the lands in those states.
"It's just crazy," he said. "What they're saying is you people in Utah are not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough to manage your own lands, but somehow the people in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Illinois are."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: amyjoi16
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company