SALT LAKE CITY — A states' rights, public lands movement with its genesis in Utah was blasted by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Thursday as an effort that threatens to undo the successes of American conservation policy.
"This would roll back 100 years of public lands progress," he said in a teleconference hosted by the National Wildlife Federation.
"This would cause Teddy Roosevelt to roll over in his grave if he knew what the Republican National Committee's position was in respect to our public lands."
Roosevelt is regarded as the presidential architect of public lands conservation in the United States, creating a flurry of national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges under his administration, as well signing the Antiquities Act into law that gives presidents the executive power over such decisions.
In the teleconference, Salazar emphasized that a resolution endorsed by the Republican National Committee in favor of the Western states' movement is wrong-headed.
"These lands are the nation's birthright," he said. "They do not belong to one state."
The Transfer of Public Lands Act was passed in Utah two years ago and calls on the federal government to cede title to lands that some say were supposed to be "disposed" of at statehood.
Sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the law is at the center of a movement that has gained political traction among Utah's neighbors and sympathetic support from critics who say the federal government has too much control in the West.
The effort seeks transfers of vast swaths of Forest Service and BLM lands into state or private control, generating revenue that would support cash-strapped public school systems.
In Utah, more than 65 percent of the land is under the purview of the federal government, which "take back" supporters say puts the state at an economic disadvantage when it comes to tax revenues.
But critics say to sell or trade off public lands is to relinquish lands cherished by U.S. citizens and envied by countries around the world.
"America's national parks, monuments and rugged landscapes are not only a draw for people in this country but across the globe," said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive officer of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond, a clothing and outdoor equipment company. "No other country in the world has the public land infrastructure that we have. "
While the anti-public lands movement — at least in Utah — does not seek to dismantle national parks or monuments, Metcalf said he sees it as a real threat to the outdoor recreation economy.
"I see no other issue as strategically threatening to the vibrancy of one of America's most significant, sustainable and growing sectors and the American outdoor industry is the world's leader. It is one of the few industries where America still dominates."
Metcalf said he first heard of the anti-public lands movement about 18 months ago, an ideological mission he said most dismissed out of hand because it was so "right-wing and so unimaginable."
"Now, because of our deafening silence and the fact that we did not mobilize earlier, something that people thought was inconceivable is actually a plank in the Republican National Committee. Clearly it has gained momentum."
Utah has led out in a public policy and legislative push against continued federal land management and in Congress, a number of bills seek to rein in the power of agencies like the BLM and the Forest Service.
The festering resentment over federal land management policies on such activities like grazing, wild horses, oil and gas development, forest management and endangered species has crystalized in conflicts like that of Cliven Bundy's showdown over "trespassing" cattle and a defiant ATV ride in San Juan County.
The federation's Collin O'Mara said booting the public off the land, however, is not the answer.
"Resolutions like these cut against more than a century's worth of precedent," he said, noting that he'd visited the Salmon River area of Idaho recently, reveling in its beauty.
"The idea that lands like those could be closed off from visitors, from residents, from wildlife lovers of all stripes is a terrifying proposition because of the connection with nature that could be lost through these kind of activities," said O'Mara, the federation's president and chief executive officer.
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