SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gov. Gary Herbert kicked off his first Outdoor Recreation Summit on Thursday by finalizing a long-awaited swap of state and federal lands in eastern Utah.
Congress authorized the deal in 2009, but it has taken years of negotiations to be finalized.
The deal gives the federal government about 25,000 acres of wilderness mostly in Grand County for conservation and recreation.
In return, Utah receives about 35,000 acres of energy-rich land, mostly in Uintah County.
"This is really a proverbial win-win of preserving lands that ought to be preserved and developing lands that ought to be developed," Herbert told reporters after the signing.
Herbert, U.S. Bureau of Land Management state director Juan Palma and state trust lands director Kevin Carter signed the agreement in front of more than 400 attendees at the daylong summit in Salt Lake City.
Herbert said the land swap agreement represents the kind of cooperation he hopes to see as government officials and representatives of Utah's booming outdoor industry come together at the summit.
Public lands policies have long caused tension between Utah leaders and representatives from the outdoor industry.
With two-thirds of Utah's land owned by the federal government, Utah's governor and Republican-controlled Legislature have pushed for the state to have more control of those spaces.
"This is our first recreation summit, so we want to introduce everybody to some of the issues," said Ashley Korenblat, who owns Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, a mountain biking hotspot. "The public lands issues are definitely part of the recreation economy, and we're looking at all kinds of different ways to sort those out."
If the friction continues, Korenblat said, it could harm tourism efforts or make people think Utah is more interested in mining and drilling than recreation on public lands.
Thursday's summit is one of the major elements of Herbert's broad-stroke plan to cultivate the state's $5.8 billion outdoors industry and promote Utah's natural and wild land attractions.
Instead of a sea of corporate suits, many attendees wore fleece pullovers, down vests and other outdoor gear while listening to talks that focused on the intersections of public lands policy, business, recreation and tourism.
Last year, Herbert created a state office dedicated solely to outdoor recreation, the first of its kind in the country, and appointed an industry executive, Brad Petersen, to head it up.
The outdoor industry responded, with organizers of the world's largest outdoor-gear trade announcing they'd signed a contract to continue holding their biannual expo in the state through August 2016.
The Outdoor Retailer expo has taken place in Utah since 1996 and pours $40 million into the local economy annually. Organizers considered moving, citing a shortage of exhibition space and hotel rooms.
Utah leaders addressed that earlier this year by approving a $75 million tax incentive for the builder of an 800- to 1,000-room hotel near the convention center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Despite the show of support, Utah leaders have held fast to their desire to have more control over federal lands.
The Boulder, Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association, which sponsors the gear expo, has opposed legislation signed by Herbert in 2012 that demands the federal government transfer control of much of Utah's public lands to the state by 2015.
Speakers on Thursday touched on the friction over public lands but kept their discussion mostly positive, emphasizing opportunities to work together.
Outdoor Industry Association President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer said there needs to be coordination between government and stakeholders in the outdoors industry, he said.
"That's why I really congratulate Utah on creating a strategy because you are now going to be able to start to solve this within your state."
Petersen and others highlighted an effort led by U.S. Rep Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to work with more than 100 different stakeholders to find a master compromise over land disputes.
Bishop's office said this week that they hope to form legislation to present to Congress by the end of summer.
Petersen said outdoor recreation is great way to make public lands profitable for the state, particularly in rural areas with shrinking economies.
"Recreation is a great, viable resource for them to actually go out there and continue to diversify those economies," he said.
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