Frustrated Utah lawmakers vent to BLM, Forest Service

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

Published: Wed, June 18, 2014, 5:15 p.m. MDT

 A Utah legislative committee overseeing public land policy issues asked hard questions of the BLM and Forest Service about grazing and law enforcement conflicts, with some asserting that politics and retribution enter into decision-making.

A Utah legislative committee overseeing public land policy issues asked hard questions of the BLM and Forest Service about grazing and law enforcement conflicts, with some asserting that politics and retribution enter into decision-making.

(Jordan Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Dueling concerns over grazing cutbacks and renegade federal law enforcement agents dominated a committee meeting on Utah's Capitol Hill, where lawmakers peppered top Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials.

The Wednesday discussion, while civil, showcased the frustration, fear and anger at play in the reluctant relationship rural Utah has with its federal partners when it comes to management of public lands.

"We as a state are heavily dependent on what you do in managing these lands. … It is very, very important we have a working relationship," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and House chairman of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, adding that he represents residents of seven rural counties.

"They have a very, very difficult time understanding some of the decisions that come down," Noel said.

Lawmakers complained of a steady erosion of grazing allotments made by federal agencies that defer to the interests of environmental groups or have an anti-ranching agenda.

The Utah Farm Bureau's Randy Parker and Kane County Commissioner Dirk Clayson said uncertainty over grazing allotments is driving ranching families out of business and inflicting mental harm.

"The certainty issue is tremendous," Parker said. "The psychological impact on these families is tremendous."

Parker said ranchers are hearing requests that they should plan for reductions of up to 50 percent on the amount of federal land that is available for livestock grazing.

Clayson likened it to a retail shop owner being forced to operate under threat of a possible reduction in merchandising space.

"That lease may terminate in the next two or three years, but they're not sure. What would that do to the viability of any business? That is the kind of cloud that has been hanging over our ranchers for decades," he said.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said the BLM arbitrarily canceled its contracts with county sheriffs' departments on the premise they were "illegal," but Utah was the only state in which that action was taken.

"This seems to be a little bit of a retribution decision," Cox said, adding that promises of new contracts have been only that.

Juan Palma, Utah head of the BLM, said there was not retribution involved in the decision on the contracts, which ultimately have to be approved by his Washington, D.C., superiors.

While Utah law enforcement has worked with federal agencies for years, both Cox and Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, voiced dismay over what they say is a new era in federal law enforcement behavior in which there is an excessive display of force by federal agents, and the BLM officials in Utah are dismissive at best.

Ivory pointed to the Nevada showdown the federal agency had with rancher Cliven Bundy, who was the target of a court order after he failed to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees.

"There were hundreds of agents armed heavily with Tasers and attack dogs going in to collect a fee or fine. We have not seen that before," Ivory said.

Cox said he traveled to Nevada at the time of the Bundy crisis to convey only that Utah did not want to host the errant cattle.

While he said he did not support the rebellious ranchers' actions, he said his sentiments were "drowned out by the size and force of what was seen there."

"I was really taken aback at what I saw. There were over 200 federal agents," Cox said. "I worked on a ranch and never seen two helicopters bring in five cows. I cannot imagine the amount of money that was spent and wasted."

When Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, suggested that Utah goes begging for federal non-cooperation with its "bellicose" and "arrogant" behavior, Cox took exception to the remark.

"I am not willing to take that responsibility," he said. "This is not kindergarten."

Cox said despite the best efforts by Utah officials to negotiate on array of contentious issues with the BLM's top law enforcement agent in charge, the state has been shut down.

Palma said agents carry out rules they did not create, and added that his office is continually working at improving relationships with the counties, ranchers and others who grapple with tension over land management decisions.

"My response is that we can sit down together, and I believe that our employees from the BLM will sit down and talk about these problems and what some of these solutions to those problems are beyond the legal process," he said.

Palma added he's never been to a BLM meeting in his career in which there is talk by the agency to "undo grazing."

Allen Rowley, forest supervisor with the Ashley National Forest, said his approach is to work with ranchers up front and make sure they're aware of any cutbacks that are coming.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

1. Tyler McArthur
South Jordan, UT,
June 18, 2014

Why are only Utah and 11 other western states under the jurisdiction of the BLM? How can Utah graduate from BLM stewardship and become like the other 38 states that don't need federal oversight? Are we somehow less responsible in managing our state and its resources than the states further to the east?

In all seriousness, Utah is consistently praised in the press and by government officials as an example of an exceptionally well-run state (Wall Street Journal in 2012 called it the 4th best run state). The BLM probably served some purpose in the days of the wild west when huge tracts of desert land reasonably needed some kind of law and order. But, with the development and growth of the state of Utah, the BLM is no longer needed and has outlived its purpose.

My question is: Is there any plan for the BLM to draw down its influence in the state of Utah? Because in the opinion of many citizens of my state, it is far past time.

2. Noodlekaboodle
Poplar Grove, UT,
June 18, 2014

Maybe these people should talk to their state legislator about not gerrymandering them out of a congressional seat. Think about it, because the legislators main goal was to split up the democrats in SL County, all 4 of our congressional districts include big chunks of urban area's. If you look at our 4 congressmen, 3 of the for are from the 3 most populated counties(Utah, Davis and Salt Lake) and even Rob Bishop who lives in Brigham City, represents an area that includes Ogden. When rural voters make up such a small percentage of each of these men's districts, what incentive is there for them to work on this at the national level?

3. 10CC
Bountiful, UT,
June 18, 2014

Tyler McArthur: Actually, I trust the BLM far, FAR more than I do the Utah State Legislature.

Utah's own Pat Shea is a former Director of the BLM, and I suspect that makes him more qualified than anybody in Utah to actually know the subject matter. Pat Shea says the State of Utah is in no position to properly manage these vast tracts of land. I'll take the scientists and biologists of the BLM over our Legislature's tendency to blow money on really dumb issues, every day.

Case in point: Spending $200,000 on a fly-by-night lobbyist who lobbies Congress on making sure wolves don't return to Utah... except he can't account for how he's spent the money. So, what do we do? Give him more money.

Look at what terribly shape many of Utah's state parks are in. They would rather spend the money fighting gay marriage, which even Orrin Hatch realizes is a wasted effort.

Look at how ridiculously the State of Utah handles alcohol permits and the boondoggle nobody can understand called Utah alcohol laws, and tell me that qualifies them for even more responsibility.

4. farmrdave
Oregon, OR,
June 18, 2014

In Oregon 30 years ago a question arose when the failing Spotted Owl species was used to stop logging, which devastated hundreds of Oregon communities and hundreds of thousands of Oregonian carriers. "article 1 section 8 of our constitution vary clearly says the federal government cannot own land within the states other than a small amount within clearly defined exceptions", how can BLM claim more than 50% of the land within the state of Oregon? In 30 years no one has provided (as far as I know) the answer to that question. That answer would have great bearing on the issue in Utah and at the Bundy ranch in Nevada. Is BLM and Forest Service land ownership outside of constitutional limits? I personally think it is, so do many others.

5. NT
SomewhereIn, UT,
June 18, 2014

What I observed in Idaho was this - that the more public/federal land was closed down to grazing and trail riding (ATVs) and other multi-use activities, the more the remaining land became used...and more quickly used up.

Not rocket science here. Need to open up MORE land in order to preserve more.