Detente in Public Lands Debate?

Alta, UT – It was billed as a civil debate on public land use in Utah and the gathering at the annual Land and Water Symposium kept to format.

Maybe it was the crisp mountain air, maybe the idyllic setting in the Albion Basin above Alta Ski Resort. Whatever the reason, two of the most passionate opposing voices in Utah's public lands debate remained polite and agreed to disagree during the Land and Water Symposium, an annual gathering for politicians and policy wonks.

Attorney and Former BLM chief Pat Shea began the discussion with a history lesson, saying from the get-go, the nation's founders wanted 'one nation under law' and that policy extends to public lands.

"The United States citizens have sponsored and paid for that land since the beginning of that land being under the United States jurisdiction," said Shea. "And the idea now in the 21st century they should get that free so that people in the states could handle it is simply contrary to our constitutional history."

He said there is strength in the collective.

"Imagine what the West would be like if we didn't have Yellowstone National Park, we didn't have Grand Teton, we didn't have Bryce, we didn't have Zion, we didn't have the Grand Canyon. Those are areas that have generated enormous amounts of revenue, but they make us whole as a nation because we believe they are ours. They're not the citizens' of Nevada. They're not the citizens' of Arizona. They're the citizens' of the United States."

But Republican Representative Mike Noel said the federal government has overstepped its bounds when it comes to public lands.

"What I'm saying is it's overkill," said Noel. "What has happened now is we've gone way beyond the pale in these environmental regulations. We've gone way beyond what was ever anticipated by Congress."

He lamented that the federal government owns 97 percent of the land in Kane County - which he represents.

"We don't want the federal government coming down here and directing our lives," Noel said. "None of you like the Internal Revenue Service. Why do you want to have federal agencies managing and having total control over two-thirds of our state and the surrounding areas of our state. That's what's created the problem in our mind."

Noel also said the needs of local residents must be part of the discussion when it comes to energy development and control of rural roads.

"Their life matters. Just like I read about all the issues up here in Albion Basin and the indiv that want to protect this area and what you think about this area. People in Kane County and Garfield County and Wayne County and Piute County and generations that have lived there: their life matters."

Shea countered that local control can become too provincial if left unchecked.

"Sometimes local interests or even regional interests can be so narrow on either economic development or maintaining a lifestyle that the national interest that has sustained that land is forgotten or not paid attention to, said Shea."

Governor Gary Herbert commended the duo for staying civil, joking the debate could have gotten ugly.

"I know it's been one of the more exciting debates since Lincoln-Douglas," said Herbert. "May I harken back to that Thrilla in Manila,' the Rumble in the Jungle.' Maybe this is the 'Conflict in the Canyon.'"

Herbert reiterated the theme he outlined in his inaugural speech, urging those in the crowd to reason together and find compromise when it comes to land, energy and water policy.

"It's time that we get past the talking past each other, the view that we are right and they are wrong, us versus them, and see if we cannot find some way to work together in what I call good faith," said Herbert. "Unless we do that, we will not find solutions. We'll continue to have this civil war that continues and we'll never solve the problems."

Jennifer Napier-Pearce, KUER News.