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What’s getting in the way of meaningful environmental policy? Lack of collaboration between Western states and federal government, Cox says

Governor invites President Biden and Vice President Harris to come to Utah to see firsthand the problems the state faces and the solutions it has found

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a Western Governors’ Association workshop in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a Western Governors’ Association workshop for the Working Lands, Working Communities Initiative in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Partisanship is getting in the way of meaningful environmental policy, says Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who urged collaboration between Western states, the federal government and other stakeholders as he addressed the Western Governor’s Association workshop in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

“Often, we make excuses rather than getting together to actually solve these complex problems,” he said. “We wait to litigate, we sue each other, we never solve anything. And we just get dumber every year. And for once, I would like us not to get dumber.”

Cox extended an offer to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris: Come to Utah to see firsthand the problems the state faces and the solutions it has found.

“Come out here. We’ll take very good care of you. ... We will take you to these places and see what happens when we disrupt force in the right way to protect life, protect property, to protect animals,” Cox said, referring to a project in Fishlake National Forest involving prescribed burns, deadwood removal and mechanical treatment.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” he said, pointing to both the project’s outcome — a robust aspen forest in place of congested and unhealthy conifer trees — and the collaboration between the Forest Service, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, local industry and environmental groups.

The meeting comes as the West is facing a historic drought, catastrophic wildfires and increasingly hot summers.

The Dixie Fire became California’s second-largest wildfire in state history, Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam is dangerously close to not being able to generate power, and the Salt Lake City International Airport recorded its hottest July on record.

A U.N. report released in August that Secretary-General António Guterres described as “a code red for humanity” suggests conditions could get worse. The planet is warming at rates faster than scientists previously thought, and if trends increase, climate change could cause chaos around the world.

Utah emerged from the summer relatively unscathed from the fires compared to other Western states like California, Idaho, Washington or Oregon, Cox said. But the Beehive State couldn’t escape the smoke, which at one point brought the worst air quality in the world to Salt Lake City.

“We would like nothing more than to not have California smoke in Utah. But that means the federal government and California are going to have to work closely together and they’re going to have to learn from what we’re doing here in Utah to prevent those things from happening,” he said.

The tension long plaguing coordination between federal entities within the Department of the Interior, like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service and state and local governments, was central to Wednesday’s workshop.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams speaks on a panel during a Western Governors’ Association workshop for the Working Lands, Working Communities Initiative in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams speaks on a panel during a Western Governors’ Association workshop for the Working Lands, Working Communities Initiative in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Everybody just has their own agenda and perspective and we find that same thing with the BLM and Forest Service. ... Sometimes we probably listen to the local residents more than we do people from out of the area. I think that’s just part of what we deal with,” said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams.

Located in San Juan County is Bears Ears National Monument, which was cut down by nearly 85% by former President Donald Trump in 2017 and could possibly be restored by the Biden administration. The monument is arguably the most recent and high-profile example of the tension between the West and Washington, D.C.

Many Utah lawmakers and some locals perceive the sprawling monument as federal overreach, while tribal nations and environmental groups say the land needs the strict federal protections granted by national monument status.

And while it’s often portrayed as a black-and-white issue — either you are for the monument, or against it — Cox on Wednesday told the Deseret News there is more gray than usually depicted.

“There’s fairly broad agreement that land needs protection there ... and there’s broad agreement about getting additional resources there to actually protect those lands,” he said. “A monument designation does not do that. It doesn't include any additional dollars, it doesn't build a welcome center, it doesn't put up signs to let people know where they can go and can’t go. Those are all things that are really important in land management.”

Cox said in April that Utah would likely sue if the Biden administration acted “unilaterally” to restore Bears Ears to its original size. To avoid litigation, Cox says, the Department of the Interior and state politicians need to “bring together lots of stakeholders and try to find common ground and agreement. And we feel very confident that we can get to a very broad agreement.”

The collaborative approach Cox hopes to see from the federal government doesn’t stop at the Bears Ears National Monument. Whether the problem is forest management, wildfire, drought or water rights, “answers aren't going to come out of Washington, D.C. They're going to come out of the states working together here,” he said.

“I’ve been to Washington, D.C., I lived in Virginia, they’re wonderful places, they’re great. And it’s impossible for you to have any idea what it’s actually like to be here in the West. And so you’re going to have to listen to people who are here,” he said.

Climate change, in the form of drought and wildfire, also risks increasing tension between Western states.

Seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — sit along the Colorado River Basin, along with Mexico. Both Arizona and Nevada are using less water from the river this year, and if weak snowpack trends continue, states could bring the fight over water rights to the courtroom.

“Everybody’s proud that we haven’t had any major litigation on the Colorado River Basin, as states have been able to come together to find common solutions,” Cox said, before noting that states will need to adapt.

“There will be sacrifices, there will be sacrifices by the upper basin states and the lower basin states, but they're sacrifices that we’re all going to have to meet, and I’m confident we will.”

What exactly those sacrifices will be, Cox didn’t say. He did point to the recently formed Colorado River Authority of Utah as a way he hopes to collaborate with other states while keeping the interests of the Beehive State in mind.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a Western Governors’ Association workshop for the Working Lands, Working Communities Initiative in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a Western Governors’ Association workshop for the Working Lands, Working Communities Initiative in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News