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Lands policy office sought

Governor’s aide says the state needs just one voice on issues

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When dealing with the federal government on the perennially volatile issues of land policy, Utah needs to speak with one voice, Gayle McKeachnie, the governor's rural affairs coordinator, said Monday, and that voice should be a new one: a state public lands policy office.

Topics like wilderness, roads and wild and scenic rivers — all environmental hot buttons — would be a focus of the office, McKeachnie told the Deseret Morning News after proposing the idea to the Legislature's Joint Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. But he insisted, "I do not have an agenda so we can clobber these people or help these people."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. broached the subject earlier this month in a meeting with journalists but gave few details.

McKeachnie said Monday that Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, is drafting a bill to establish the office.

Several state departments cover the same issues and sometimes their officers give conflicting statements on them, he said.

When he was lieutenant governor, McKeachnie added, "I made a great effort, without much success, to get all those people to start talking with each other."

The office would have a manager who would be answerable to the governor and lieutenant governor. Several organizations would provide personnel and funding.

McKeachnie said the office would deal with road issues and wilderness — "all the resources management plans that the BLM is doing, the Forest Service roadless issues, wild and scenic rivers — those are the ones that come to my mind right now."

One way to set up the office would be for the Legislature to authorize the governor to create the organization quickly. A second would be for the Legislature to spell out the office in detail now, he said. But he did not like that route because, McKeachnie said, "That probably takes more time."

An advisory committee should be set up to help the proposed public lands policy office, he said, adding that legislators could be represented on the advisory board.

Lately, he added, the state's Resource Development Coordinating Committee has not been working well in large part because the committee is no longer part of the governor's office.

"While they're still going through the motions, it doesn't work like it did when somebody in the governor's office demanded that we all get together and plan," he said.

"This is a good step in the right direction," said Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Kanab. "But to start this process, I would like to see a pretty detailed vision statement of what we are looking for on public lands and how they interface with our state."

Considerations should include Utahns' interest in water rights, watersheds, roads and access, he said. In the past, Utah officials went in different directions. "They have not only gone different directions, but I'm not sure there was an overall direction for them to go," he said.

A perfect example is the binding agreement the state signed with the federal government in 1999 regarding locking up resources when the Legislature and county did not know about it, he said.

McKeachnie later said the comment referred to establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Maybe the office should be set up quickly and the Legislature could take a look at it in a year or so, Hatch said.

Funding would come from the state Division of Natural Resources, the governor's office and the RS2477 project, which deals with battle with the federal government over establishment and ownership of rural dirt roads in Utah, McKeachnie said. The State Energy Office could be transferred into the governor's office, and the Energy Office could have a bit of money left over for administration of the new policy group, according to one plan he mentioned.

Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said should a public lands policy office be established, environmental interests must be represented. Groene made the statement as he emerged from an hourlong meeting with Huntsman.

McKeachnie said the advisory board should have less than 10 members.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com