Gehrke: Mia Love’s pivot on Utah’s outdoors smells like an election-year conversion

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

In 1986, when I was barely in my teens, my older brother had me out walking up and down streets, putting door-hangers around our neighborhood for Rep. Wayne Owens’ race.

Frankly, I didn’t know much about Owens at the time, but I’d come to appreciate his work — pressing for compensation for those sickened by nuclear weapons testing, his tireless work on mideast peace, and his advocacy for Utah’s public lands.

So it was perplexing on Monday to have Owens’ son, Doug Owens, who had run as a Democratfor Congress twice and lost, at an event touting the value of Utah’s spectacular outdoor recreation opportunities with the woman who beat him, U.S. Rep. Mia Love, a Republican.

They were releasing a study conducted for Owens’ new nonprofit, Outdoor Partners, by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute that found what many of us already intuitively knew: Utah’s outdoor recreation is a huge draw for companies seeking to relocate or hire here.

When it came to locating in Utah, business leaders said Utah’s outdoor lifestyle and access to outdoor recreation finished only behind being able to hire a quality workforce when it came to the decision to locate in Utah.

“It’s my belief that our access to outdoor recreation attracts a strong, talented and diverse workforce,” one business leader was quoted as saying in the report. “Without it, we are North Dakota or Mississippi.”

And that’s good news, obviously, because we live here.

We’ve seen the outdoor recreation industry exploding in the state to the point that, in 2017, it generated $12.3 billion for Utah’s economy.

And we’ve seen these benefits despite continued hostility from the state’s Legislature and congressional delegation, including Love.

“I completely support the return of Utah land from the federal government back to the state of Utah as was promised in the Utah Enabling Act,” Love said, jumping on the take-back-the-land bandwagon during a debate with Doug Owens in 2014.

No, the act that inducted Utah into the union doesn’t say any such thing about “returning” land to the state — in fact, it says quite the opposite. The whole notion also flies in the face of Wayne Owens’ efforts to protect Utah’s redrock wilderness from mineral exploitation. (On Monday, she softened her stance, saying there are some lands that could be turned over to the state.)

Love joined the delegation in applauding President Donald Trump’s order last December to dismantle not only the Bears Ears National Monument, but also the 23-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

She is co-sponsoring legislation to create a national park. That bill would also formalize Trump’s reduced Grand Staircase and Bears Ears monuments, but hand over decision-making to the local leaders, who have been hostile to conservation, and it re-opens hundreds of thousands of previously protected acres to oil, gas and — most notably — coal development.

It was the opposition of state leaders to Bears Ears and their general hostility to conservation that prompted the Outdoor Retailers to pull up stakes and take their show to Colorado, along with the potential economic impact of up to $100 million.

The bottom line: Utah’s outdoor recreation industry has prospered in spite of Love and the rest, not because of them.

So why the sudden change? Love said she is looking to bring cooperation to contentious public land issues.

“I want to get the politics out of it and make sure we’re doing what is good for the state of Utah,” she said.

Sure, she said President Barack Obama acted “like a dictator” in designating the Bears Ears monument. But let’s get politics out of it.

Or maybe it’s all about politics in the first place.

Love is up for re-election and her public lands views could be a vulnerability. Last fall, a UtahPolicy.com poll found that 53 percent of the voters in the 4th District opposed reductions to Bears Ears and 57 percent opposed reducing Grand Staircase.

What she got by standing alongside Owens was legitimacy. She got to look like a nonpartisan pragmatist (notwithstanding her record) and the best part, she didn’t actually have to do anything but show up.

Now, credit where it’s due: Love has co-sponsored several bills that help streamline permitting for outfitters and reduce regulations for recreating on the public land (none have actually become law).

If Love is sincere about her new conservation ethic, she could be an ally in recasting the debate. But given the context of election year politics and her track record over the past four years, there is plenty of reason to doubt that this is more than finding that shallowest of faith: ballot-box religion.