Perhaps the greatest challenge Utah GOP legislators have in the battle over federal lands is not Congress, or the president, or even the environmental community.
It’s Utah citizens themselves, many of whom question whether the Republican establishment that runs this place will protect Utah’s millions of acres of pristine lands – now under federal control -- for the enjoyment of future generations.
Using a phrase from LDS Church doctrine and society, Rep. Steve Handy says he’s is convinced that future Legislatures and governors will have “proper stewardship” of the lands.
And now it is up to Handy to shepherd through a bill this session that sets out a framework for Utah officials to designate wilderness areas, should the time come when the state gets control of the 65 percent of land now held by the federal government.
“It is time” in the fight over federal lands in Utah “for us to demonstrate we are up to this,” says Handy, who has been a public relations/messaging consultant since leaving his job as marketing director for the Deseret News.
“I know something about messaging. And we will show that we can and will conserve our lands,” Handy told UtahPolicy Wednesday.
Thursday, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop is coming to Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers about his comprehensive public lands effort. Bishop sits on the U.S. House’s environmental committees.
Handy says his bill, as well as others soon to be introduced in the 2014 session, “fits in well with Bishop’s plan” of slowly returning great swaths of federal land in Southern Utah to state management.
At the start of the 2014 Legislature, House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, announced he was setting up an informal working group of about a dozen House members, whose aim is to produce eight to 10 bills this session that would re-energize the state’s efforts to get control of federal lands – as promised by Congress in the 1896 Utah Enabling Act, when Utah became a state.
“We do espouse a conversation ethic,” says Handy.
But if and when the state gets control of these federal lands, there needs to be a process whereby truly wilderness-quality areas are protected long-term from development.
But there are other federal lands that could, maybe even should, be used to the benefits of Utah citizens, especially school children, GOP legislators argue.
Handy’s bill, yet unnumbered, lists nearly a dozen basic guidelines in determining “Utah wilderness lands.”
These include phrases like protecting lands “untrammeled” by man; lands that “open a window on the world;” along with guaranteeing some kind of multiple use.
The words “proper stewardship” of the land is used several times in the bill – wording also found in Mormon works.
“I didn’t write that phrase – it is used in other” public land documents, said Handy.
But he agrees with it.
“We will have stewardship over these lands, sometime.
“If, through the Legislature, we decide that 5,000 acres in Bullet Canyon deserve to be designated state wilderness, (his bill) will be the framework for that – along with studies, public hearings and so on.”
Persons with existing mineral, grazing or other land rights will have those protected, said Handy.
All associated state agency bosses have signed off on his legislation, he added.
But some GOP legislators have not.
“There are those in Southern Utah who just hate, they hate, the idea of wilderness – whether designated by federal officials or state officials.”
They worry locking up lands in wilderness will harm their lifestyles, their economy, the chances that their children and grandchildren can make a living ranching, farming, or will have to move to the big city.
But there are other options, especially as seen in a “huge study” put out by the state’s Constitutional Defense Council.
That study calls for certain actions, as Utah approaches the time when it can get millions of the federal acres back.
“And one of those is creating a process whereby we, as a state, designate wilderness areas. My bill will do that,” said Handy.