Lately, Gov. Gary Herbert's administration has taken to the media to try to justify its plan to drain millions of taxpayer dollars in a pair of long-shot litigation gambles to seize federal public lands and to crisscross remote wilderness areas with thousands of primitive trails they refer to as "roads."
But you know you've gone too far when even Arizona won't follow your lead. The conservative Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, just vetoed a bill similar to Utah's federal land grab statute. Brewer acknowledged that the bill violates the U.S. Constitution; she also worried that transferring 23 million acres of federal land to state control would unnecessarily stress both the state's land management abilities and its budget.
Arizona's not the only state to take a pass. At Herbert's recent summit, only two other governors showed up, and none took up Utah's land grab battle.
Why is our governor out alone on this wild goose chase? Is he unaware that the federal Bureau of Land Management alone spends $150 million to manage public lands in Utah, while Utah can't even manage to fully fund its $12 million state parks budget? Does Herbert understand that the tourism economy, so dependent on the spectacular scenery of our federal lands, brings in $6 billion annually to the state?
In addition to seizing federal land the state is about to spend countless millions of our tax dollars in an effort to wrest title to 12,000 miles of "roads," mostly a tangle of tracks in the middle of Utah's vast deserts and spectacular canyon country, from the federal government.
But what will these courtroom battles get us? Not real roads, just a warped satisfaction for some at having tilted at the federal windmill and attacked the ideal of wilderness protection. And a huge bill.
Here's why it's doesn't make sense:
There is no controversy over about 2,000 of the routes in the litigation. No one has tried to close them or interfere with their use, and often the counties grade them to ensure public safety. Taxpayer money to litigate these claims is wasted, unless your goal is simply to pick an ideological fight.
Also, about 10,000 of the routes have not been graded or constructed, and Utah Department of Transportation doesn't even track them. They have no engineering plans, environmental studies, or traffic analysis. Many are abandoned seismic lines, trails pioneered by anonymous prospectors or other explorers, and old livestock trails.
Many fade away into the desert with no apparent destination. They may only see a handful of drivers a year, sometimes none. They are simply not roads in the way we normally think of them. But if established, they would threaten wildlife habitat and introduce engine noise and scars where natural quiet and beauty once reigned, irreparably damaging national parks and wilderness areas.
But don't take our word for it, or the word of Utah politicians. Look at some of these so-called "roads" at http://www.suwa.org/state-filed-rs-2477-claims. Look especially at Salt Creek, the subject of an eight-year lawsuit in which the state argued unsuccessfully that a wash bed in Canyonlands National Park was really a "highway." That case cost Utahns over $1 million in attorneys' fees and it's not over yet.
A million dollars on one route. And now the governor wants to litigate 12,000 routes.
Apparently the governor thinks that courtroom battles over primitive roads to nowhere and long-settled federal ownership of public lands for all of us not just developers are a good idea. He couldn't be more wrong.
Heidi McIntosh is associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.