- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Leaders of Utah’s roughly $6 billion outdoor recreation industry joined a conservation group Monday to launch a billboard campaign criticizing a push by state officials to take control of vast swaths of public land from the federal government.

The billboards going up in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada Monday feature images of mountain bikers and warn that public lands are under attack in Utah.

“As people make their summer vacation plans, we want to raise awareness of what could happen if Utah politicians succeed in taking over public lands,” said Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities, which is behind the billboards. The billboards will go up in Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and Reno.

Rokala and recreation officials argue Utah would have to sell off public land or ramp up drilling and mining to be able to afford management costs, which would encroach on or close off pristine outdoor spaces.

“If the politicians in Utah have their way, access to your favorite camping spot, mountain biking trail or fishing hole could be cut off,” Rokala said at a press conference at Utah’s Capitol on Monday.

State GOP lawmakers have been urging Utah’s attorney general to sue the federal government with the hope of gaining control of about 30 million acres. The lawsuit is expected to cost up to $14 million, but critics say Utah has no legal claim to the land, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies.

Proponents of the lawsuit argue that the state’s claim lies in the Utah Enabling Act, which led to Utah’s statehood. Supporters, mainly Republicans, contend that the state would be a better manager and that local control would allow Utah to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres.

The land demand does not include national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, with the exception of the roughly 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and its underground coal reserves.

Attorney General Sean Reyes has not said if he’ll pursue the case, but lawmakers have already stashed $4.5 million for the lawsuit, which could cost three times that amount. The Legislature’s own attorneys warned that Utah would likely lose the lawsuit.

Rokala was joined by Juan Palma, the former Utah director of the BLM, Ashley Korenblat, the owner of a Moab bike tour company, and Brad Petersen, the first person to serve as the director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation.

They pointed to a 2014 study that found Utah could afford the $280 million annual cost of management through oil and gas leases on the land if prices for those commodities remain high. If oil and gas prices remain relatively low, as they are now, the state would have to increase drilling, raise the costs for drilling companies, or find other ways to make money.

“We simply will not be able to meet the needs of all our visitors and the quality their experience will suffer, and the next thing you know, customers will go elsewhere,” Korenblat said.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s spokesman Jon Cox called the billboard campaign “another out-of-state interest group telling Utahns that we shouldn’t be allowed to manage our own public lands.”

Cox said the governor disagrees with the analysis that Utah can’t afford the land, arguing that the state can operate more efficiently than the federal government.

GOP state Rep. Ken Ivory, who has spearheaded the lands push, said the group is fear-mongering and that federal control chokes local economies and leads to mismanagement such as overgrown forests ripe for catastrophic wildfires.

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