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Ralph Becker: Agenda for a better public lands future in Utah and the West

The Bears Ears, of Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.
The Bears Ears, of Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah has reached a new level of hypertension around our public lands, which constitute three-fourths of our state’s land ownership. We badly need to break the cycle of perpetual conflict, and break out of our public lands funk.

Two of the most recent issues — creation of Bears Ears National Monument and calls for its rescission, and the exit of the Outdoor Retailer Show — underscore the consequences of Utah’s inability to develop thoughtful public lands solutions.

Utah leads the nation in anti-public-lands policies and rhetoric, and it continues to appropriate millions of dollars to sue the United States to try to force the transfer of federal lands to the states. When the Western States Attorneys General organization reviewed the legal veracity of Utah’s land transfer claims, an independent legal report concluded that the legal bases for transfer were not well-founded under the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Their report was approved by the Western States Attorney Generals 11-1. Utah’s expensive folly should end.

As Utah continues its pursuit of these claims, and fights over the existence of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, our neighboring states are working together on inclusive and durable public lands management practices. In Idaho, for example, Rep. Michael Simpson and his congressional colleagues responded to a monument proposal by establishing the White Clouds Wilderness Area, resolving 20 years of contention.

In Colorado, "master leasing plans" are providing a path for oil and gas development that takes into account other users and uses of the state’s public lands — including recreation businesses, local communities and its many cultural and historic resources.

Utah has a long and understandable tradition of distrust for the federal government. And, like all Western states, our rural communities have the ever-present reminder of surrounding federal lands, with decisions being made by outsiders about access to those lands and use of the resources on them. The culture and custom of grazing, logging and mining are threatened by both the economic reality facing those industries and by the increasing popularity of recreation and protection of cultural and natural resources. While rural communities value the land and its resources, they chafe at being told what to do.

Utah urbanites also value the land and its resources. As the ninth most urban state in the nation, a growing population cherishes Utah public lands for their outdoor recreational opportunities, protected landscapes and wildlife and cultural resources.

Consensus between our rural and urban communities can occur. With inclusive and thoughtful agreement-seeking processes on specific lands and resources, Utahns can achieve more balanced and appropriate land management and decision-making.

After many years working in communities in Utah and across the West on public lands matters, I am convinced that when people representing all interests come together in their locales to address public lands issues, their differences diminish and they can find common ground.

Examples in Utah of such approaches include the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act, which helped advance community needs while protecting valued public lands; and the multi-stakeholder Mountain Accord process, which resulted in broad agreement on a desired future for the Central Wasatch Mountains. Similar approaches are used by Envision Utah and in a range of transportation planning and improvements. These projects and others offer proof that Utah can move from being an outlier in management of public lands to a model of how to work together to achieve thoughtful, inclusive public lands management.

As a starting point for changing the current dynamic — from one rife with conflict and hostility to one that is more pragmatic, collaborative and creative, I suggest Utah leaders adopt the following road map for managing our public lands:

  1. Commit to open, transparent, inclusive processes that engage everyone in dialog and collaborative decision-making.
  2. Agree on Utah values for public lands.
  3. Support local multi-interest governance approaches respecting federal laws as a framework for decisions. That is, empower people to work together who know the lands and the resources to make decisions and accept well-established federal law.
  4. Agree on key goals and objectives — including boosting the economies of rural communities and protecting important public lands and resources.
  5. Develop an agenda for carrying out these objectives.
  6. Implement decisions, assigning responsibility to the most effective public entity with participation by the affected public.

By meeting face-to-face, getting to know one another and sharing information and options, Utah can arrive at sensible and durable solutions to managing our precious public lands. Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.