“Mother Nature played favorites with Utah.” Vicki Varela from Utah’s Office of Tourism often starts speeches with this great quote. When we think about what makes Utah such a great place to live, one of the most important factors is access to the great outdoors.

For those lucky enough to grow up in Utah’s proud agricultural communities, outdoor living was a given — not only is there the pride of producing food, but the pursuit itself is a life lived outdoors, with a wide view of your surroundings and a deep appreciation for nature. This is what Utah’s Quality Growth Commission is all about.

As our state continues to grow, a large percentage of our population is in danger of losing everyday access to open lands, both for agriculture and recreation. Sure, we have our national forests and national parks, but for most of our citizens, those places do not provide a lunchtime walk or an after-work bike ride. The Quality Growth Commission, which administers the LeRay McAllister Critical Lands Conservation Fund, was created for this very reason. Those of us volunteering on the commission have a front-row seat to the waves of change that are threatening Utah’s quality of life — the very thing that makes Utah uniquely attractive to both our own children and increased corporate investment.

As more and more of Utah cities and towns grow, pressure increases on the land itself. Development marches forward providing needed housing and other infrastructure, but with strategic planning and foresight there is an opportunity to meet our growing needs and simultaneously maintain outdoor access and critical agricultural lands.

Many communities across our nation suffer from the same trends — the same chain stores, the same housing developments and the same loss of agricultural lands. Utah stands out as a place where a connection to nature is still part of our everyday lives, and this plays a key role in our ability to attract the kinds of companies bringing top level jobs to our state. Both Goldman Sachs and Adobe rely on Utah’s quality of life to attract the best and the brightest. Utah’s own Silicon Slopes are the envy of just about every state east of the Sierras, but if our cities and towns lose their access to open space, life in Utah will lose its uniqueness.

The Quality Growth Commission uses a Utah approach to open lands. The free market puts us in contact with willing buyers and willing sellers. Our work is entirely locally driven by Utah landowners and Utah elected officials. We only invest in lands that will be kept in use, and in the past we have leveraged state dollars with matching funds at an 8 to 1 ratio. Our funding goes to places like the Kohler Dairy in Midway — maintaining local food security and open space, or adding to the Jordan River Parkway, which provides outdoor access to nearby communities. 

Critical agricultural and recreation related projects are popping up across the state in nearly every county, but unfortunately limited and sporadic funding has forced the commission to turn down many worthwhile projects. We applaud the one-time investments from the Legislature that preserved access to the Zion Narrows, conserved farmland and restored fragile ecosystems. However, many critical projects remain in limbo.

We appreciate Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget recommendation for the LeRay McAllister Fund, and we urge Utah’s lawmakers to look more closely at the work of our commission. Smart investing in Utah’s unique quality of life is one of the best ways to leverage state dollars for the future of our communities and our children. 

The Utah Quality Growth Commission, created by the 1999 Quality Growth Act, advises the Legislature and governor on growth management issues and promotes critical land conservation as part of responsible growth by administering the LeRay McAllister Critical Land Conservation program. The commission consists of the directors of the departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources, local elected officials, and private sector representatives from agriculture, construction and real estate organizations. Commissioners are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate and serve up to two four-year terms.