SALT LAKE CITY — The looming threat of catastrophic wildfires, the overpopulation of wild horses and rangeland conditions for livestock were among the top concerns the agricultural community aired with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during a Friday roundtable discussion in Utah.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the conversation — and complaints — did not go unheeded by Bernhardt, who grew up in Colorado and was visiting Utah for a number of events.

“He’s very familiar with Western issues,” Lee said. “These are controversial and difficult issues. ... He has not lost sight of Westerners.”

Bernhardt, in a telephone interview after the roundtable, said one of the chief complaints raised by livestock producers is the need for better management of rangeland to prevent wildfires or degradation from wild horses.

“The reality is they would like to see more active management of our rangeland, which would minimize devastating wildfires, which is exactly what the president is proposing and doing,” he said.

The Interior Department, in fact, is on the cusp of making significant management changes for how some fuels are addressed, he said.

“We are about to finalize a (new rule) for rapid treatment related to pinion juniper that will be very significant for the state of Utah,” he said.

That rule would allow the agency to do more vegetation treatments on a yearly basis, he added.

Lee said the action is critical given the impacts of catastrophic wildfires to property, life and livestock producers who have seen the charred bodies of the animals they care for.

“It really is a heart-breaking issue and a deep concern to everyone,” he said, pointing a finger at federal policies he says have fostered neglect of landscapes over the years.

“It ends up being an environmental disaster on top of everything else.”

Brian Steed, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, attended Friday’s roundtable on agricultural issues and said it was a fruitful discussion, especially when it came to rangeland management, wild horses and grazing.

“We have been working together with the wildlife community and agricultural producers over the years and that is the benefit of reducing catastrophic wildfire through these partnerships,” he said.

Noting that wildfires don’t respect geopolitical boundaries, Steed said it is critical that the state and federal government play well together.

“We have a pretty good working relationship with our federal partners in the BLM trying to identify those areas most likely to burn,” he said.

The number of wild horses in Utah — far beyond the established federal limit — was raised as a concern from both the grazing community and Steed’s agency, which has oversight of wildlife such as deer and antelope.

“Wild horses are always something we are concerned about,” he said.

Within the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management has oversight of wild horse and burro populations in Western states.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signs a document transferring ownership of two federal water projects to the state as Lee McElprang, chairman of the Emery County Conservancy District, back left, and Kirk Christensen, president of the Moon Lake Water Users Association’s board, back right, await their turn to sign the document during a ceremony outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah BLM, said the agency has been successful this year at removing a number of wild horses in the state, finding homes for close to 2,000 animals.

Another wild horse gather, he added, is planned for Monday.

Sheehan also pointed to Utah’s success in partnering with agencies like his on landscape improvements through the Watershed Restoration Initiative.

“The state of Utah has been so proactive, I would argue more than any other state in the West, with the great partnerships,” he said.

While there have been well over 1,000 wildfires this season, Sheehan pointed out that the majority of them have not reached a devastating level.

“A lot of that is due to fuels treatment and landscape management techniques that bode well for the watershed, bode well for the wildlife that live there and bode well for livestock that graze there,” he said.

Earlier Friday, Bernhardt transferred ownership of the first two federal water facilities to a pair of Utah providers under a law signed by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act expedites the title transfer process for eligible federal projects, such as dams, canals, laterals and other water-related facilities. 

“This was a historic and significant action,” Bernhardt said. “This is a very positive development at the local level.”

Bernhardt said transferring ownership to water providers that have repaid their debt to the Bureau of Reclamation — one of the divisions under the U.S. Department of Interior — will allow the federal agency to focus its resources and energy on other areas and projects.

Title was given to the Emery County Project of the Emery County Water Conservancy District and the Uintah Basin Replacement Project of the Moon Lake Water Users Association. The transfers were the first in the nation and mean the Utah water providers have full local control.

The signing ceremony at the state Capitol was attended by Lee as well as Gov. Gary Herbert.

“It’s not every day that the federal government gives land back to local governments, but here we are celebrating such a minor miracle today with the transfer of these water projects,” Lee said. “For far too long local communities have been deprived the right to own, control and manage projects that are essential to the life of the community. I want to thank Secretary Bernhardt for his outstanding leadership in making this day a reality. I hope these are just the first of many transfers to come.”

Herbert, too, added his appreciation for the transfers.

“I appreciate Secretary Bernhardt’s continued deference to state and local leadership and expertise, and these title transfers are just the latest case in point,” Herbert said. “We know the good people of Emery and Duchesne counties, and the respective water users associations, will continue making prudent decisions for these projects, as they have for many decades.”