SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said managing forests and threatened species are tasks best left to states instead of a federal government held hostage by bureaucracy and stymied by litigation.
"We think we are in a better position to manage," Herbert told members of a House Natural Resources subcommittee. "It is not that they are not well-intentioned, they are just not on the ground like we are."
Herbert was in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, to testify before the committee chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and to meet with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who has just taken the helm of the agency that is the nation's biggest landlord.
During the hearing, Herbert laid out details of the Utah Public Lands Transfer Act, passed in 2012 and bolstered by subsequent anti-federal legislation a year later.
The law is a tool being used by Utah to wrest control of public lands controlled by the federal government — in excess of 60 percent of the land within Utah. Herbert said the state has "absolutely" no intention of taking ownership of national parks, national monuments or the close to three dozen wilderness areas.
He stressed there is no incentive for the state to sell off any federal lands it eventually controls, noting that 95 percent of the proceeds would be returned to the federal government.
"It just needs to be managed better."
Herbert cited failed management of national forests; long, drawn out years of crafting federal resource management plans; and indiscernible and confusing approaches by the federal government to manage imperiled species.
He specifically lamented the recent indication that the federal government will snub Utah's sage grouse conservation plan unveiled in April and touted as a way to protect more than 90 percent of the state's population.
"It's frustrating to spend a year and good faith effort and to have it rejected out of hand."
Efforts to forge partnerships and reach common solutions have been fraught with roadblocks and failure, he said.
"The concept of a federal-state partnership is becoming more and more like Bigfoot sightings: frequently reported but rarely seen."
Herbert, who is chair of the Western Governors Association, told committee members many political leaders in other Western states feel a similar level of frustration, but he said he was not speaking on the organization's behalf.
"Regrettably, federal land agencies have demonstrated the inability to nimbly or courageously respond."
The public lands fight in Utah has stoked a fervent campaign against Herbert by multiple groups that include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
On the same day of Herbert's testimony in Washington, a new group, Kids For Lands, announced a press conference for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the northwest corner of Liberty Park. The group includes school board members, teachers and students who are challenging Herbert's efforts on public lands and are urging him to "safeguard — not seize — public lands."
The group has created its own website and is urging signatures opposing Herbert's position, asserting the legal battles will cost Utah millions of dollars.
But Herbert stressed in his testimony that there has to be a better way and a solution that solves the impasse between Western states and the federal government.
Both he and Bishop referenced "grand bargain," an effort by Bishop to end the divisive sparring over public lands by bringing energy companies, environmental organizations and conservation groups to the bargaining table over some sort of consensus on development or protection. Ultimately, legislation could broker land trades that created new wilderness areas but opened up lands to other uses such as oil and gas development.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said such input into that type of effort is best garnered beginning at the local level to balance all interests.
"We don't simply see it (the land) as a resource that should be exploited," he said. "We will be the best shepherds of those lands versus someone in D.C., perhaps who has never set foot in our state."
At the conclusion of the hearing, Herbert extended an invitation to committee members to visit Utah during the June meeting of the Western Governors Association to see firsthand the land and how it is managed.
"No one understands state challenges and demographics better than the people who reside and govern there," he said.
Herbert later said in a telephone interview that his meeting with Jewell was productive and that he extended the same invitation to her to come to Utah for the Western Governors Association meeting.
"I think we have a better than even chance she'll come," he said.
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