February 19, 2013

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Middle Ground

Would State Control of Federal Lands Harm the Recreation Industry?

Spencer Sutherland

February 19, 2013


It’s been nearly a year since Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed legislation demanding the U.S. government give Utah the deed to millions of acres of federal lands. Though House Bill 148 has received the support of Utah legislators and states’ rights advocacy groups, not everyone is pleased with the legislation.

The public lands issue, combined with the governor’s vigorous energy-development efforts, has many in the outdoor recreation industry fuming. Peter Metcalf, founder of Utah-based outdoor retailer Black Diamond, has been very vocal in his disapproval for the governor’s land policies, which he feels have been detrimental to both the state’s natural beauty and its multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry. As a result of Metcalf’s public remarks, Herbert asked him to resign from the state’s Ski and Snowboarding Industry Working Group.

“Despite the governor’s claims that he’s taking a very balanced approach to his policies and how they affect the public lands,” Metcalf says, “all his legislation and actions are about being a champion of uses that are detrimental to outdoor recreation.”

The Outdoor Industry Association, which has also expressed concern, recently asked the governor to spell out his vision for Utah’s recreational future before considering Salt Lake City as a host for future Outdoor Retailer Markets, events that currently bring tens of millions of revenue dollars into the state each year.

Recognizing the economic impact of the Outdoor Retailer Markets and the state’s outdoor industry, the governor was quick to form the Balanced Resource Council, an organization charged to develop a comprehensive outdoor recreation vision plan.

“It’s a group of well respected leaders in Utah from all perspectives on environment and lands,” says Alan Matheson, Herbert’s environmental advisor. “Their job is to work on challenging issues and find practical solutions.”

The plan, which was released late January, has been lauded as a balanced approach by both the Outdoor Industry Association and Metcalf.

“It is a commendable and appreciated first step. As one who has first worked with him and then challenged him in this regard, I must now thank him. Though concerns persist.”

A Long-time Dispute

Disputes about Utah’s public lands are anything but new. “This discussion has been going on since the early 1900s. Governors from both parties in Utah have talked to the federal government about getting the lands in state control,” says Matheson.

The long-standing issue has to do with the historical inequality between East and West. Though the majority of federal lands in the Eastern United States have been turned over to state control, that hasn’t been the case in the West.

“When you look at a map of federal lands in the U.S., everything Colorado and New Mexico west is dominated by federal lands and everything east is primarily private,” Matheson says. “The argument of some is that it’s time for the federal government to fulfill its promise to the states and turn over those lands so they can be used and managed appropriately by the states.”

Managing those lands, Matheson says, will give Utah the opportunity to better monitor the health and safety of its wilderness, ensure access to recreation and create revenue for the state.

“The governor and his team recognize that public lands are really important to Utahns. The ability to access some of the most beautiful scenery in the world is part of our culture and heritage,” Matheson says. “It’s critical to our economy in terms of tourism and attracting some of the best talent in the country to come live here. Nobody has any intention of spoiling these natural treasures.”

There is also money to be made. “There are places in the state that most people would think are appropriate for development,” Matheson adds. “We have mineral resources and oil and gas resources that, if developed in an environmentally sensitive way, could generate significant income to help educate our kids.”

More Harm than Good

Metcalf fears that if the state gains control of federals lands, the public will lose out in the long run. “If the lands are sold off, so many public [recreation locations] will be taken away. That is certainly something that sets a horrific precedent,” Metcalf says. “The outdoor industry couldn’t think of a more damaging strategy and set of legislative policies than that. It would upend one of the few industries that America leads.”

He also believes that the state’s land sovereignty would mean giving up hefty federal benefits. “Federal lands are managed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says. “Those dollars do not come out of the pockets of Utahns. The benefits that come to us from having these federal lands accrue almost exclusively to Utah citizens.”

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