Washington • Gov. Gary Herbert backed the idea of a congressional "grand bargain" to solve the decades-old contentious public lands debate in Utah but he still says the federal government should hand over public lands to the state.
Herbert said the two viewpoints aren't contradictory, but are "complementary," and that the state would still want to preserve some land and open other parts up to oil and gas drilling.
"The only difference is that we're suggesting the title of that property should be given to the state of Utah, which will further enable us to manage it correctly," Herbert said after testifying before the House Natural Resources subcommittee over public lands.
Herbert said that he would like to work with federal land managers to solve the fight over how to manage public swaths that cover most of Utah, but that so far the effort isn't working.
"The concept of federal-state partnerships is becoming more and more like Big Foot frequently touted but rarely actually seen," Herbert testified.
The Utah governor, the only witness in the subcommittee's hearing, said he supported Rep. Rob Bishop's plan to bring together all sides of the public land debate including environmentalists, oil and gas industry officials, local officials and federal land managers to find a compromise and move beyond the never-ending bickering.
That said, Herbert noted that Utah could manage the 30 million acres of federal lands without harming them.
"The reality is that people don't flock to Utah from all over the world because its lands are federally managed," Herbert said. "They flock to Utah because Utah lands are unique, precious and visually and spiritually stunning. These lands will be just as precious and valued if they are managed by state or local entities."
Bishop, who chaired Tuesday's hearing, says he may propose legislation as early as next month to try and reach a deal with the divergent groups over divvying up land in eastern Utah for either protection or mineral extraction. Former Sen. Bob Bennett was able to push through a similar measure in 2009 to protect lands in Washington County and release some areas for development.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has met with Bishop about his "grand bargain" idea, says Herbert is wrong to call the two issues "complementary."
"Unless they've changed the definition of the word since last time I checked," Groene says. "It's entirely inconsistent with the idea of resolving these issues on federal lands through legislation."
Moreover, Groene says, the state taking over federal lands would be an "economic and ecological disaster" and the attempt is a complete waste of resources because it won't happen.