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Utah Lake, wild horses, grazing, river dispute angle for lawmakers' attention

SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of lawmakers Monday will vote on recommended spending priorities designed to help Utah's environment, with requests that include dollars for air quality research, grazing improvement programs, removal of invasive plants at Utah Lake and wild horse management.

There are about 100 funding considerations before the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee. About 40 of them involve shuffling money around in restricted accounts — like letting the state parks division dip into fee revenue for capital improvements — and another 60 or so involve requests for either one-time money or ongoing appropriations.

The requests run the gamut and represent the myriad needs across the state to manage Utah's natural resources.

In a meeting last week detailing those funding requests, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, described the impetus behind a desired half-million dollars to continue work being done around the state via the grazing improvement program.

A collaborative effort playing out in Rich County involves more than 30 ranchers working in conjunction with federal, state and local agencies in a pilot project that incorporates rotational grazing of some 3,200 head of cattle and 3,000 sheep. Albrecht said it is modeled after the success of the Deseret Land and Livestock operation, which over 30 years has vastly improved habitat for wildlife.

Albrecht said cooperative rangeland restoration projects are being used widely throughout Utah to institute habitat and waterway improvements that benefit wildlife in areas like Wayne and Juab counties.

An extra $50,000 will help finish the mechanical treatment of invasive phragmites along the northern area of the Utah Lake, which has up to 8,000 acres impacted by the noxious weed.

A $500,000 appropriation last year for wild horse and burro management helped the state work with the Bureau of Land Management to work on seven projects covering 18,000 acres to boost rangeland health.

Another appropriation in the same amount would enable the state to work with the BLM on an accelerated removal schedule of wild horses and burros above targeted management levels, said Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem.

A $1 million funding request, if approved, would establish the Jordan River Recreation Area for improvements like boat ramps or vegetation management, along with extra police patrols along its 52-mile corridor to boost recreation safety.

Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, is hoping to tap into $100,000 from a restricted account to pay for a river analyst as the state struggles to reach a solution in a controversial stream access dispute.

"This is a really big issue," Hawkes said, "rife with conflict."

The Utah Supreme Court deemed a portion of the Weber River near Oakley is a "navigable" waterway that grants the recreating public certain access rights, even if the river crosses private property. The state, Hawkes emphasized, needs to continue to work with the public and landowners to sort out the ramifications of the judicial ruling.

The natural resources legislative committee, which is poised to take three separate votes on requests for one-time money, ongoing funds and user fees, is also staring at more than $3 million in requests related to Utah's air quality challenges.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, has a one-time request of $2 million for a legal challenge to California's efforts to block export of Utah's coal and another $1.5 million is under consideration for Utah's continued effort to manage sage grouse, rather than the federal government.

Lawmakers' requests for one-time money for the coming fiscal year of 2019 come to nearly $20 million, while $6.5 million is on the table for ongoing expenditures.