SALT LAKE CITY — A group of public education proponents say Utah's top political leaders such as Gov. Gary Herbert would help the long-term interests of students by dropping their "misguided" public lands fight with the federal government.
The network, called For Kids and Lands, held a press conference Wednesday at Liberty Park, where they decried Utah's "arrogant" battle with the federal government over ownership of certain lands and titles to disputed roadways or trails.
"Ultimately this public lands transfer will result in marred and scarred landscapes for years to come," said James Thompson, a Bingham High School teacher.
Thompson was referencing HB148, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, and signed into law by Herbert in 2012. The transfer of public lands law seeks title to lands held in ownership by federal agencies that include the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
The law serves notice to relinquish title or a suit will follow. In addition, the state is embroiled in a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Interior over disputed routes, trails and roadways that wilderness advocates claim are not transportation routes at all, but just attempts by Utah to foster energy development and other resource extraction.
"We set a poor example for our children by pursuing such courses of action," reads a statement by the group that was delivered to Herbert's office on Wednesday.
"We call on our elected leaders to take another path: demonstrate long-term planning for public education, environmental stewardship, and priorities that honor future generations," the statement said.
Thompson described himself as a fifth-generation Utahn who grew up loving the state's landscapes, a passion he has passed on as a varsity Scout leader.
"These lands have served as a place of renewal and inspiration for me, for my family, for my students, for the many Boy Scouts I have mentored over the years," he said.
Thompson was joined by Heather Bennett, a member of the Board of Education of the Salt Lake City School District, who said Utah's showdown with the federal government will be costly, fail in its attempt to bolster public education funding and "almost certainly" harm public lands.
Bennett described Utah's attempted coup as arrogant and urged Herbert to take a stance that promotes "true" stewardship over the lands by using reason and negotiation instead of threats.
"Reason will triumph. … This doesn't seem to me to be reasonable," she said.
The group's position statement includes signatures by faculty representatives at the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College and Weber State University, a pair of former Utah legislators and a former Utah attorney general. Another 1,200 residents have signed on as well, urging the state to drop the fight.
But Herbert, Ivory and others behind the push say they have tried tirelessly to reach reasonable solutions with the federal government in cases such as disputed roads and the threatened endangered species listing of the greater sage grouse, only to be stonewalled or rejected.
"Just as Henry Ford offered his first customers a choice of any color car they wanted as long as it was black, federal land management agencies today provide flexibility in land management," Herbert told a Congressional subcommittee on Tuesday, "as long as they do it the way Washington tells them."