SALT LAKE CITY – 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 the state, but a lack of hotel rooms and convention space is problematic.
Outdoor Retailer spokeswoman Kate Lowery said the state’s land transfer law isn’t impacting their decision, but she added the industry wants access to Utah’s pristine lands.
In his speech, Babbitt urged outdoor recreation businesses to flex their growing muscle — consumers spend an estimated $646 billion a year in 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.”
A deadline Utah set for the federal government to hand over 31 million acres of public land passed earlier this month with no such transfer, something predicted by both critics and supporters. 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.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says it’s a waste of time to debate whether Utah will take over the land. 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 the law is a conduit so public lands can be served up to the coal, oil, gas and mineral industries for exploitation.
Gov. Gary Herbert didn’t immediate provide comment on Babbitt’s remarks.
About 22,000 people are in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer 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 move 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.”