Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Thursday slammed Utah’s push to seize control of federal lands as a radical measure that threatens the outdoor recreation industry, which brings a lucrative gear show to the state twice a year.
Babbitt’s comments came during a speech to a group of outdoor recreation company representatives in Salt Lake City for the biannual Outdoor Retailer Show, going on this week.
“Our public land heritage really is under attack,” said Babbitt, speaking at a Conservation Alliance event. “We’ve really got a crowd of uninformed, misguided politicians who are attempting to dismantle or abolish public lands and the agencies that administer them.”
Babbitt’s remarks are the latest indication Utah’s political posturing on the issue could affect its relationship with the outdoor recreation industry, which supports the retailer show that brings an estimated $40 million in economic benefits to the state each year.
Organizers already have been considering moving the show to another city after its contract with Salt Lake City ends in 2016. They’ve said they want to stay in Utah but cited a lack of hotel rooms and convention space.
In his speech, Babbitt urged outdoor recreation businesses to flex their growing muscle — consumers spend an estimated $646 billion a year on the industry — and work to ensure the nation’s public lands aren’t sold off or developed.
“This is the moment to come together, stand tall, raise your voice, put your industry into the fight,” Babbitt said. “It will make a real difference.”
Utah says it would be a better land manager and that local control would allow the state to make money from taxes and development rights. Utah Republican leaders are laying groundwork to push the issue in court, though it’s unclear when the state might file a lawsuit.
Babbitt, who served as interior secretary under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001, said Utah’s land transfer law is a conduit so public lands can be served up to the coal, oil, gas and mineral industries for exploitation.
The 2012 law set a deadline for the federal government to hand over 31 million acres of public land by the start of this year. The deadline passed with no such transfer, something predicted by both critics and supporters.
Gov. Gary Herbert said through a spokesman he strongly disagrees with Babbitt’s characterization of the law.
Herbert believes state management of the lands would help preserve Utah’s beauty and cultural heritage and ensure “appropriate public access and multiple use,” Marty Carpenter said in a statement.
Republican Ken Ivory, a state representative who spearheaded Utah’s push, defended the law by pointing to a recent report commissioned by the state in which university economists concluded there are inefficiencies in federal management of public lands.
Ivory criticized Babbitt’s remarks as hyperbole and said it’s time to have a good-faith conversation about transferring lands to the state, which he contends would give people easier access to recreate on Utah’s public lands.
Outdoor Retailer spokeswoman Kate Lowery said Utah’s law isn’t impacting their decision about the show, but she added the industry wants access to the state’s pristine lands.
About 22,000 people are in Salt Lake City for the outdoor show, a business-to-business expo that allows store owners to meet with manufacturers and preview products that will reach the retail market soon.
Before announcing in 2013 it would extend its Utah contract through next year, show organizers threatened to relocate the event if the state didn’t demonstrate a commitment to preserving public lands.
Herbert issued a report laying out a broad-stroke plan to preserve Utah’s natural jewels and cultivate outdoor recreation as a pillar of its economy. He also created an office devoted solely to outdoor recreation.
Those moves seemed to ease the industry’s concerns. But Utah’s continued push to control federal public lands plants new seeds of anxiety about its true intentions, said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., an outdoor gear manufacturer.
“Are they really committed to supporting the natural and iconic landscapes that this outdoor industry is predicated upon?” Metcalf said. “This land grab sends the message that they’re not.”