Drawing Lines in the Land
The battle lines were drawn earlier this year when Gov. Gary Herbert signed House Bill 148. Sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, a West Jordan Republican, the measure demands the federal government turn over as much as 30 million acres of Utah land to the state by 2014. In a rekindling of the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion that pitted ranchers, loggers and miners against federal regulators for control of the West’s vast resources, the Utah bill’s supporters argue the federal government in the 1800s had pledged to return control of public land to western states, including Utah, as it had done in newly minted midwestern states. That the exchange never happened, say the Sagebrush rebels, is not only an inequality, but a betrayal of the federalism envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
Opponents and many legal experts, however, say legislation like Ivory’s is based on misreadings of the 1848 Utah statehood enabling act and is flat-out unconstitutional. The bill would exempt national parks, wildernesses and monuments with the exception of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument that proponents say holds vast amounts of coal.
Though the bill only calls for a study, both sides are girding for a court battle. “The federal government retaining control of two-thirds of our landmass was never in the bargain when we became a state, and it is indefensible 116 years later,” Herbert said when he signed the bill.
Ivory is enraged by environmentalists who say supporters of his bill “hate the land” and would greedily despoil it. “That’s ridiculous. As Utahns, we are recreationists,” he says. “We are enamored with our heritage sites as a people.”
Environmentalists and the outdoor retailers say ecotourism and recreation is a new economy that will raise tax money over the long term to educate Utah kids without destroying the wildlands. Ivory makes no bones about the state’s drive to extract wealth from the land: “Of course [we want] more drilling. Energy is life. Energy is education. Energy is health.”
But Peter Metcalf, chief executive at Salt Lake–based Black Diamond, warns: “They’ll kill the golden goose.”
What's at stake in the battle between Utah's Sagebrush rebels and the outdoor industry:
Attendees at the twice annual Outdoor Retailer show
Brought into the state annually from the shows
In state taxes from outdoor recreation
Flows into the state each year through outdoor recreation
Acres of land in dispute between Utah and federal government
Utah land owned by the federal government, the most of any state
Utah land designated as wilderness