ATV protest: A few thousand ride to 'Take Back Utah'
Protest signs carried by about 3,000 American flag waving-motorized recreation enthusiasts riding off-highway vehicles up State Street to the steps of the state Capitol told the story of Saturday's Take Back Utah rally.
"I'll keep my guns, my freedom, my land. You keep the change," read one sign.
"This is the Place for US, not the U.S. government," opined another that was part of a parade that included sheep trailers, mountain bikers, oil and coal trucks and dozens of ATV riders exercising their freedom by not wearing helmets.
"A Man and His ATV -- A Beautiful Thing" read a placard carried by one participant, while another rider wore a T-shirt claiming that "paved roads are a fine example of needless government spending."
Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett addressed an appreciative and somewhat angry throng. So did two of Bennett's 2010 Republican Senate nomination opponents, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and firebrand Cherilyn Eagar, who sang part of a Sesame Street song.
Organized by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and a host of off-highway vehicle clubs and sponsored by a diverse group of public land users including hunters, ranchers, farmers, miners and oil and gas companies, the event was long on anger and rhetoric and short on specifics about how federal land management should be changed or even eliminated.
"We're God-fearing and gun clinging," said Mike Swenson of the off-highway vehicle group USA-ALL, who offered a message for what he called radical environmental groups: "You guys that love rocks and trees more than human beings, you have awakened a sleeping giant. We are not going away. We've been way too easy on you. There is a new war in the western United States to take back our lands."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance -- one sign read "Don't commit SUWA-cide" -- joined the Bureau of Land Management, the Obama administration, any wilderness designation and the federal government as the rally's biggest bogeymen.
Noel, who worked for nearly 20 years for the BLM as a lands specialist before quitting in disgust when the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established by then-President Bill Clinton, said he hoped the event would energize Utahns who might not have time to backpack into scenic parts of the state for two weeks but want to access public lands.
"This is more than about recreation, it's about farming and mining and keeping revenues generated by the lands of Utah," Noel said. "This is a beginning. We have got to be extreme in the way we take back these public lands."
Hatch said he joined the Sagebrush Rebellion to get more state and local control over Western public lands in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was president and told the crowd that he was glad the movement is alive and well.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, laid out a historical and constitutional case against wilderness and federal ownership of public land and said the reason many states with vast areas of public land have trouble funding education is because of a lack of private land.
Part of Saturday's speeches involved the political posturing by U.S. Senate rivals Bennett, Shurtleff and Egar, who all tried to establish their credentials as freedom-loving states' rights advocates.
"Back to the beginning of the Obama administration, they shut down the oil leases all across Utah," Bennett said. "They listened to SUWA rather than abide by the law."
Shurtleff boasted of winning legal battles to keep roads open and lands from being designated as wilderness.
"These are our roads, our lands, our families, our resources, our rights and we are going to stand up for them once and for all," said the state attorney general.
Eagar called federal ownership of 67 percent of Utah not only wrong but unconstitutional.
"Washington, we don't need your help," Eagar said to the crowd. "We can take care of ourselves."
Michaelyn Erickson, of Bountiful, one of hundreds of OHV club members hailing from across Utah, said she came to let legislators know she wants free access to public lands for everyone.
"If you designate a wilderness, it is limited to hikers and horseback riders," she said.
If there were Democrats or environmentalists amid the throng, they kept a decidedly low profile.
SUWA associate director Heidi McIntosh issued a pre-emptive news release Friday.
"You just have to ask: 'take back Utah from what, exactly?'' McIntosh said, in questioning the rally's theme. "Despite their rhetoric, these groups have long had access to nearly all public lands in Utah, frequently to the detriment of the long-term health of the public lands, with no long-term economic stability."
That statement would probably be lost on the man carrying a sign mocking wilderness supporters' iconic "Wild Utah" bumper stickers by saying, "Utah is wild enough. No more wilderness and road closure."