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Can Utah’s Governor Win Back the Trust of Public Land Advocates?

Doing so will require concrete action, not just words.

By Jimmy Tobias


Utah Governor Gary Herbert. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A raucous little rebellion has rocked Republican politicians in Utah in recent weeks.

It began in January, when the founder of the gear company Black Diamond penned an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune calling on Outdoor Retailer, a massive recreation industry trade show that takes place in Utah twice a year, to “leave the state in disgust.”

“Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah’s D.C. delegation are leading a national all-out assault on the sanctity of Utah and the country’s public lands,” wrote the recreation industry luminary Peter Metcalf. “Together, Utah’s political leadership has birthed an anti-public lands political agenda that is the driving force of an existential threat to the vibrancy of Utah and America’s outdoor industry.”

Metcalf’s January op-ed inspired something of an insurrection among outdoor industry brands. In the last few weeks, numerous companies, including Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Peak Design, announced they would not be returning to the Outdoor Retailer trade show until the event finds a new home outside Utah. The show’s organizers, for their part, have signaled their intent to leave the state.

That’s very bad news for Utah Governor Gary Herbert. Thanks to Herbert’s anti-conservation agenda — including his support for the land transfer movement and his state’s attacks on the Antiquities Act — Utah faces a budding boycott that could prove quite costly. Outdoor Retailer, after all, brings in more than $40 million a year to the state’s economy.

Herbert seems aware of the economic havoc this boycott could unleash, and he’s already showing signs of folding in the face of industry anger. Earlier this week, he published an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune reaffirming Utah’s commitment to public lands and promising to “work more closely with the outdoor industry.”

“Obviously there are differences of opinion on this matter,” he wrote. “But let me be clear about where there is full agreement: Utahns love our exceptional public lands.”

His gesture of conciliation doesn’t stop there. Herbert and outdoor industry leaders plan to hold a phone call today to discuss public lands policy.

Amy Roberts, the executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, which sponsors Outdoor Retailer, will be on the call along with three industry CEOs. She tells Pacific Standard the conversation is an opportunity to try to get the state to change its approach to federal lands.

“Words are not enough,” she says. “We are asking for concrete steps.”

If Herbert wants to prove his commitment to our nation’s priceless public parcels, here are a few overdue actions he could take:

Repudiate the Land Transfer Movement

Utah is the fountainhead of the so-called land transfer movement, an effort by right-wing politicians and activists to transfer the bulk of federal public lands to the control of state governments. This movement has sprung up under Herbert’s watch.

If he’s serious about his love for public lands, the governor could immediately set to work with the state legislature to repeal the 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act, a law that seeks to compel the United States government to hand over the majority of federal lands in Utah to state control. What’s more, he could publicly oppose the land transfer lawsuit that Utah has been preparing to file in federal court. The suit, if successful, would use the court system to force large-scale land transfer, and could set a legal precedent that would be severely damaging to the federal domain. The governor might also consider dissolving his Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, an executive branch entity that has acted as a staging ground of sorts for the state’s anti-conservation agenda and whose activities are largely shielded from Utah’s open records law.

Stop the Antiquities Act Attacks

In early February, Herbert signed a resolution that calls on President Donald Trump to use his powers to rescind southern Utah’s brand new Bears Ears National Monument. This mostly symbolic measure, which the OIA’s Roberts calls “an affront,” is just one instance of a broader right-wing attack on the Antiquities Act. The century-old act, which allows presidents to take independent action to protect federal lands, is an essential component of our country’s conservation infrastructure. It has been used over the years to permanently conserve landmarks as diverse as the Statue of Liberty, the Stonewall Riot site, and many large landscapes across the West, including Bears Ears. But Republicans at both the state and national level want to see it severely weakened, if not gutted outright. Even now the U.S. Senate has before it a bill that would essentially destroy the law.

To bolster his credibility among public lands supporters, Herbert would have to stop aiding and abetting these efforts, denounce the Senate bill, and renounce his recently signed Bears Ears resolution.

Rein in Representative Rob Bishop

The undisputed anti-conservation leader in Congress is Representative Rob Bishop of Utah’s 1st district. As the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Bishop has made dismantling conservation law and dissolving the federal domain his central legislative priority. He’s been a consistent enemy of federal sage grouse conservation, and has said he “would love to invalidate” the Endangered Species Act. He has tried to politicize and weaken the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He has pushed Trump to unravel national monument designations. And he recently helped spearhead new Congressional rules that make it much easier to transfer federal lands to state and local control.

Only a small handful of individuals, including Bishop’s constituents and Republican Party leaders, have the power to put the brakes on his extreme actions. Herbert is one of those few.

“As the leader of the Republican Party in the state, [Herbert] really needs to have a conversation, and specifically with Congressman Bishop, about how they got in this place and what they need to do to change,” Roberts says.

Bishop’s attacks on our conservation system have been going on for years. Herbert has the ability to rein him in.

If the governor takes these steps publicly and sincerely, perhaps Outdoor Retailer will choose to remain in Utah. At the moment, though, the industry trade show seems prepared to take its business elsewhere.

“The strength of the industry’s viewpoint around this issue has made it very difficult for the show to stay [in the state] unless we see some changes in the policymakers’ attitudes toward outdoor recreation in Utah,” Roberts says.

Finally, once and for all, Herbert must come to terms with the crucial question: Is Utah’s anti-conservation crusade, which has caused so much strife and accomplished so little, worth all this trouble?