SALT LAKE CITY — Two of the region's five governors joined Gov. Gary Herbert Friday for the first "Rocky Mountain Roundtable" meeting to talk about gaining access to federally controlled public lands and other shared issues.
While Herbert and fellow GOP governors Butch Otter of Idaho and Matt Mead of Wyoming were having lunch inside the Governor's Mansion, protesters gathered outside urged South Temple drivers to "honk if you love wilderness."
Herbert, who signed legislation demanding the federal government turn over millions of acres of public lands, said Utah is seeking to better manage the property, not sell it off.
"I know there's that accusation, but that's more political rhetoric than reality," he said. "We would certainly be more incented to, in fact, lease properties out as is currently being done and keep public access but allow for multiple use."
Utah's governor said the legislation recognizes more needs to be done with areas not already set aside as national parks or wilderness areas.
"We all know there are beautiful pristine areas that need to be preserved and protected. We also all know there are areas that ought to be developed, our natural resources and our energies," Herbert said. "Our approach would be one of balance."
Mead said he is only "casually aware" of the Utah legislation but said there would be many issues to consider, including public perception, before agreeing to support something similar in Wyoming.
"I'm not sure if we'd be interested in that or not," Mead said.
Otter said he agreed his state has "an obligation to demand that they keep the promises, especially if it's at a cost to the state of Idaho."
But the Idaho governor stopped short of saying he'd sign similar legislation.
"You could pass all the legislation in Idaho you wanted, but if it's not going to be recognized by the courts or Washington, D.C. … that's a whole different question," Otter said.
The action by the 2012 Legislature helped attract about 50 protesters to rally in front of the mansion organized to send Herbert the message, "Stop your attacks on Utah's environment."
"The frustration is really bubbling over," said Heidi McIntosh, associate director and counsel for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It's all spurred by this repeated attack on Utah's federal public lands, in particular with the agendas to seize federal public lands."
McIntosh said only one side is being heard on the debate over public lands by the Western governors. "There is a broad perspective here and a lot of people who love these special places and want to see them protected," she said.
Public lands as well as water and energy issues were the focus of the closed-door discussions by the governors and their staffs, Herbert said.
He said no conclusions were reached but called the meeting a "beginning not an end" to reaching consensus on at least some key regional issues. Herbert, the incoming chairman of the Western Governors Association, said he organized the group to boost the region's influence.
"We're smaller in population states and we don't have quite the political muscle," the governor said during the taping of his monthly press conference on KUED Ch. 7. "I think uniting our voices will help us get better outcomes out of Washington D.C. when it comes to policy affecting the West and the people who live here."
Nevada's Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, joined the meeting for about 1½ hours by phone. But the lone Democrat invited, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, ended up not participating because of issues he had to deal with in his state, Herbert said. Hickenlooper had said he would bring up immigration at the meeting, but Herbert said that issue was not discussed.
Contributing: Richard Piatt
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