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Interior deputy pitches agency overhaul to Utah's rural leaders

SALT LAKE CITY — Daggett County Commissioner Jack Lytle looked at a map of a proposed reorganization of Interior Department agencies by regions and not on state lines and was stricken.

"That was scary," he told the Interior's Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason during a Friday panel discussion in Salt Lake City hosted by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and his House Committee on Natural Resources.

The meeting at the Governor's Office of Economic Development put multiple rural county commissioners from several Western states in the same room with Cason, as well as Utah's Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and James Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors Association.

In theory, everyone likes the idea of a more locally driven, reorganized Interior Department that eliminates duplication and paperwork, has individual agencies working together — not as silos — and merges broad functions like environmental reviews or compliance.

"When I look at the structure of some of our federal agencies, it really is the best the 1940s can buy. It's time," Cox said, acknowledging the need for an overhaul.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proposed a massive reorganization of the department — the largest in the agency's history — impacting its 2,400 offices across the nation.

He is particularly set on relocating the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation to the West — something Cason said could happen in fiscal year 2019.

"Our land is out here and we are managing it from 3,000 miles away," Cason said.

During this fiscal year, Zinke has already turned a "fanciful" nod to upending the agency's structure by breaking all its smaller parts into 13 distinct regions delineated by major watersheds with unique flora and fauna.

"We've basically been organized in bureau stovepipes," Cason said, unveiling a map that would section off part of Utah into the Great Basin region and another part in the Colorado River region.

Nevada, noted a Nevada Farm Bureau representative, would be in three regions.

Cason said the idea is to merge the functions of these bureaus into regions and get decision-making closer to the ground where it impacts people and livelihoods.

"What we are trying to do is to create common boundaries that delineate specific geographic areas and get all of our employees to work together," Cason said.

"You can't get timely decisions, so the decisions go all the way up to the secretary level, instead of down at the field (level). People can't play nicely together in the sandbox."

Bishop said he organized the discussion because there has clearly been some consternation over the proposal by state and county leaders — and in D.C. — about the ramifications such a reorganization might bring.

Ogsbury, head of the Western Governors Association, said regional boundaries might create confusion over a state's sovereign role, and no reorganization can constitutionally diminish their role at the planning table.

Cason said the perimeters of the watershed boundaries were actually delineated by county boundaries to remain cognizant of local autonomy.

Local commissioners worried, however, that being swallowed up into a larger region might diminish the significance of their input.

"We already see it on so many levels," Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter said during a break at the forum.

"We get overlooked."