Leavitt blinks before leaving -- now what?

Gov. Mike Leavitt, in one of his final actions as governor of Utah before he resigned to become head of the EPA, blinked under the bright lights of increasing public scrutiny and sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management formally opposing 15 new gas wells proposed for drilling in the Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. It was cosigned by his successor, Gov. Olene Walker. In addition, he signed an executive order Nov. 1 to create a task force -- the Outdoor Recreation Economic Ecosystem Task Force -- to help resolve the status of Utah's unprotected wildlands and promote the state's recreational economy.
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Gov. Mike Leavitt, in one of his final actions as governor of Utah before he resigned to become head of the EPA, blinked under the bright lights of increasing public scrutiny and sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management formally opposing 15 new gas wells proposed for drilling in the Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. It was cosigned by his successor, Gov. Olene Walker.

In addition, he signed an executive order Nov. 1 to create a task force -- the Outdoor Recreation Economic Ecosystem Task Force -- to help resolve the status of Utah's unprotected wildlands and promote the state's recreational economy.

His executive order sets in motion plans to combine chiefs of state agencies, county commissioners, and four to six members of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) in a task force charged with seven duties. Those duties include identifying the state's premier outdoor recreation destinations, assuring that local economies benefit from the outdoor recreation economy, and developing an outdoor recreation marketing plan. Gov. Walker has stated that she is fully committed to the task force process.

"A 'drill first, ask about recreation opportunities later' public lands policy does not benefit Utah. Our fight has always been to have Utah's policymakers protect the state's special places so that our recreation economy can continue to flourish," said Black Diamond's CEO Peter Metcalf. "Leavitt's actions help create an appropriate balance between the long-term benefits of Utah's growing recreation economy and shorter-term benefits of other potential public land uses.

"We feel these actions have the potential to make Utah the shining example for how public lands should be managed across the West," said Frank Hugelmeyer, OIA president. "There's more work to be done, but these significant efforts begin to appropriately place outdoor recreation on equal footing with other industries in Utah."

SNEWS View: Both moves were clear attempts to satisfy the outdoor industry and others who had become increasingly frustrated with Leavitt's lack of responsiveness to the issues of preserving public lands for recreation. A quick sampling of emails and industry phone calls to SNEWS indicates that, for the most part, like Metcalf and Hugelmeyer, the industry has reacted positively to Leavitt's actions.

However, Hugelmeyer rightfully points out that there is much work to be done before the communal backslapping can begin. The best thing about this is that now industry folks will be able to sit down with county commissioners, the same ones who traditionally get into bed with extractive interests because of the short-term financial gains to their communities. Now, the outdoor industry will have an equal voice at the table with the mining and drilling industries and be able to demonstrate that local economies can benefit far more in the long term by embracing recreation-generated economic models.

Yes, the governor's office is now working with the outdoor industry; however, it is very important not to lose sight of the fact that what it's really doing is trying to protect what the governor's office had actually stripped of protection earlier in the year via a slippery backdoor deal it cut with U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton. If Peter Metcalf and the OIA had not spoken up, it is very likely the governor would have done nothing at all!

Already, OIA is drafting yet another protest letter to the BLM regarding more proposed drilling -- a drilling schedule opened up when Leavitt stripped protections from the land. These letters are likely to become commonplace as the BLM opens up more lands to drilling proposals every 90 days.

Equally important is the realization that while OIA did play the trump card that reads, "we might recommend moving the trade show if you don't capitulate," the show still might move from Utah despite the governor's office now doing what the industry considers the right thing.

Space issues and associated show costs are still but two of at least four issues we know of that are important to industry members. Utah has addressed one of the top criteria necessary for a city and state to host our show -- active participation with the industry toward protection of recreational opportunities and putting recreational industry needs on the same level as extractive industry desires.

As for space: Unless Salt Lake City addresses that one quickly, OR will likely move its show, and Reno has certainly made it clear it has the room and the desire to accommodate needs. SNEWS will bring you more details on possible future trade show locations -- including Denver, Reno and Salt Lake City -- in the coming weeks.

>> Speak up and sound off on this subject by going to the SNEWS Community Forum. Click here to post your views and to read what others have said.

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