Anticipating the bitter battle to come, governors from five Western states will meet in Salt Lake City on Friday to devise strategies to convince Washington to give them more control over federal land within their own boundaries.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who will host fellow governors from Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming, says Western states need unity in their stance against federal control of millions of acres of land.
He says burdensome regulations restrict energy development and limit recreational access in states where the federal government owns a majority of the land. Washington controls 66% of acreage in Utah, the highest percentage of the five states.
“The governor is trying to set the table for a frank conversation among Western governors. The desire is to speak in a unified voice, because the issues involved are as broad as immigration policy and how to use public lands,” Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Gov. Herbert told the Los Angeles Times.
Last month, Herbert signed legislation authorizing Utah to seize federal lands in 2014 unless the federal government relinquishes ownership. Arizona lawmakers have passed a similar bill, which must be signed by the governor.
This week, Washington officials hinted at the battle of words to come when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar responded testily to Utah’s new law, calling it a political stunt to appease conservative voters.
“From my point of view, it defies common sense,” he told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “I think it is political rhetoric you see in an election year. The fact is, Utah is a great example of where, through the use of public lands, we are creating thousands and thousands of jobs.”
Salazar plans to return to Utah, the self-proclaimed Beehive State, to talk up federal-state agreements on two new gas fields expected to bring nearly 5,000 additional wells to eastern Utah.
Isom said Salazar might be walking into a hornet’s nest.
“What Utah has done is not a political stunt,” she said. “There is a real disconnect between what Washington thinks are Western issues and how the Western states themselves perceive those issues.
“We’re trying to get beyond cowboy caricatures. Rather, this is a wake-up call to federal government that there are serious issues here and we want them to be taken seriously.”