Rally calls for local control of Utah's public lands
The cultural divide that separates off-roading devotees and environmentalists was on white-hot display Saturday as passionate speakers roused a crowd that wants management of Utah's federal lands ceded to state control.
"We have pushed legislation to make sure that we decide who is the sovereign. Is it the state of Utah or the federal government?" said Rep. Chris Herrod, a Provo Republican and real estate developer. He was the first of the local, state and federal politicians who addressed a Take Back Utah rally at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City.
"I can tell you that I'm tired of being treated like a serf by the federal government. It's kind of like we are ... the original colonists, where we had to report to somebody thousands of miles away. I trust you with making those decisions on how we best use those lands," Herrod said.
Former Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Deputy Attorney General John Swallow and others added their aggressive remarks before hundreds of supporters under a blazing sun. The crowd then hopped aboard their ATVs, trail bikes, flag-flapping four-wheel-drive trucks, an ancient Willys jeep, rear-engine dune buggies and a few family SUVs.
They paraded to the state Capitol, where they heard from Utah Republicans Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop.
Bishop, who chairs the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, called federal land policy a disaster that evolved over more than a century with little direction or planning.
"It was not planned. It was not preceded by study. It just happened by people who wanted to control all the land," Bishop said.
"And what is happening today, unfortunately, is not only do those in Washington want to control all the land, their goal is to expand [that control.] I'm here to tell you there are some back in Washington that are not going to let that happen, at least not without a fight," Bishop said.
The event was staged by Take Back Utah, which aims to protect access to public lands and preserve small town economies through what Glenn Olsen, the group's president, says should be balanced land use.
"The perfect world would be where all of us would sit down and come to a meeting of the minds, where we can say this area is going to be wilderness, this area is going to have access, this is going to be a school trust area that is going to be able to produce its many goods, whether it be gas, oil or grazing rights," Olsen said.
That's unlikely to happen soon. Olsen said he believes the federal government is being "bullied" by powerful environmental groups that throw expensive lawsuits in the path of reconciliation so often that the government is forced to settle rather than fight.
Olsen said environmentalists and open-access advocates must talk to each other if a consensus about Utah's lands is ever to be achieved. But he wouldn't say he is willing to extend an olive branch to his foes. "We are doing as much to reach out to them as they are to reach out to us," which is almost nothing, Olsen said.
Bishop said off-roading should be respected, noting studies have shown that off-roading provides more to the U.S. economy than any other form of play.
That message resonates with Lehi residents Gerry and Lisa Cook. The couple spend between $3,000 and $5,000 a year to off-road with their children in all corners of Utah. "If it keeps going the way it is, we are not going to have good family fun in the Utah country," Lisa Cook said.
Marc Bryson of Woods Cross also thinks off-roading is the vehicle for teaching his sons the need for responsible land use. Like Olsen, who said off-roader attitudes toward protecting wild areas are enlightened today, Bryson believes claims of widespread damage caused by ATVs and other machines are overstated.
"It's an advertising ploy. If our lands looked like that, then I would contribute [to environmental groups] as well," he said. "We've all been out there, and they don't look like that."