Several hundred people gathered Monday at rallies in Utah and Nevada to demonstrate their opposition to efforts by some Western states to seize control of federal lands.
Inside the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City, more than 200 people held signs that read, "Protect Wild Utah" or "No Utah land grab." They listened to speeches from leaders of conservation, wildlife and business groups who warned that transferring nearly 31 million acres of public land in Utah would limit access for hunters and outdoor-recreation enthusiasts and harm wildlife by splintering habitat.
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Handing the lands over to the state would risk cutting into one of Utah's biggest draw for tourists, families and major companies looking to relocate, said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., an outdoor gear manufacturer.
"The federally-managed public lands are the basis for Utah's extraordinary quality of life and for the most important, sustainable, strategic economic competitive advantage we have," Metcalf said. "It can't be ripped off in China or done more cheaply in Bangladesh."
Utah lawmakers passed a 2012 law demanding that the federal government hand over about 31 million acres of public land by the start of this year. But the deadline for the transfer passed with no action in a move predicted by both critics and supporters.
Utah lawmakers have pointed to an 800-page report released in December as to how the state could afford to manage the land. The report, which cost $500,000, found that oil and gas leases would allow Utah to cover the $280 million annual cost of managing the land, but only if those prices remained high.
The land demand does not include national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, with the exception of the roughly 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and its underground coal reserves.
The land-transfer requests have been met with fierce opposition from conservation groups, who say cash-strapped states would be more likely to sell off public lands and close them to recreational activities. Overall, the U.S. government controls vast sections of land in many Western states, including more than 80 percent of Nevada and about two-thirds of Utah.
Lawmakers in Wyoming and Idaho have also introduced legislation asking the federal government to transfer public lands to the control of state agencies. The measure in Wyoming died. Idaho's bill is just being introduced.
At a rally held Monday in Nevada in front of the state Legislature in Carson City, several dozen people showed displeasure with a legislative resolution asking for 7.2 million acres of public lands to be handed over to state officials.
The protest comes from a bipartisan concern that the land transfers could limit the amount of public access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational activities, Nevada Sierra Club lobbyist Anne Macquarie said. "If the lands were turned over to the state, we just think we'd lose a lot of the access that we enjoy as Nevadans," she said.
Nevada Republican Sen. Don Gustavson sponsored the resolution and said the federal government has long mismanaged public lands. "There's no question in my mind that we're going to protect these lands for Nevadans," he said.
Bill Christensen of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation spoke at the Utah rally. Before the rally, he said about his opposition to the land transfer: "Even though I don't always agree with the feds, I'd rather work with a devil I know than a devil I don't know."
The rally included a song from a man wearing an American flag bandanna around his neck and a cowboy hat. He sang: "Who wants to steal America's public lands?" and then asked the crowd to respond in chorus, "The governor and the legislature."