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Michael O. Leavitt: Salazar's reversal joins Governors Grove as rare public land victory

Published: Sunday, June 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt exchanged federal land in order to create Scott Matheson Park.

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Secretary Salazar's reversal this week on BLM's intent to designate quasi-wilderness in Utah reminded me of another welcome and rare public land victory that we can all feel good about. There is a fourteen-acre piece of open space adjacent to This is the Place State Park on Salt Lake City's eastern foothills. It has been designated the Scott M. Matheson Park and Nature Preserve. This week a portion of that little jewel was designated as Governors Grove with a nice commemoration of the 17 people who have held that office. The ceremony seemed a fitting time to tell the back-story of how it happened.

Early in my first term as governor I became aware that several groups had their eye on the fourteen acres, viewing it as prime for commercial development. Developing the land in my view would diminish the historic importance of the state park. It needed to be preserved.

The land was owned by the federal government and was under the control of the Department of Interior. It was a time of considerable conflict between the western public land states and the Department of Interior on land use policy. There were disputes on how much land should be protected as wilderness. Several legal battles had erupted on the use of roads across public lands. Ongoing disagreements on how publicly owned roads should be managed and water use had soured relationships across the board. The disputes for many had gone from ideological to personal.

The Secretary of Interior at the time was former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt who served as governor contemporaneously with Governor Matheson. Though Governor Matheson and I were in different political parties we shared southern Utah roots. I knew admiration for Scott Matheson was something Bruce Babbitt and I shared.

Secretary Babbitt and I had planned a private meeting in Salt Lake City hoping to find solutions on some of the areas of conflict. Bruce slipped into town unannounced. Without disclosing my motive, I methodically scheduled a dinner meeting at the University Park Hotel, just down the road from the fourteen acres.

After a meal, but just before the sun went down, I said, "Bruce, we have a lot of difficult things to work through. Maybe it would be helpful if we started on something we can agree upon." We made a short unscheduled ride to what is now known as Governors Grove.

Anyone who has stood on that spot at dusk knows the beauty of those grasslands with a Great Salt Lake sunset stretching endlessly westward.

"This property is a treasure," I said. "Without proactive initiative to protect it, somebody is going to develop it. It needs to be protected as open space and be part of This is the Place State Park."

I then turned and pointed to a home a few hundred yards away and said, "Your friend Scott Matheson raised his family in that home. I propose the Department of Interior deed this land to the State of Utah, and we'll preserve it as Scott Matheson Park."

Nothing like that happens easily. It required a coordinated effort of the Utah governor's office, the Department of Interior, the Utah Congressional delegation and the Utah Department of Natural Resources ultimately got it done. Now Utahns have a quiet refuge commemorating the giant of a man who was Scott Matheson. There's a post script to this story. Despite all the disagreement and angst on policy between the federal government and the state government, the personal relationship Bruce Babbitt and me always remained cooperative and productive. In some measure, I'm sure our little project to commemorate a common friend formed the foundation of our working relationship.

In the years that followed, Bruce Babbitt and I were able to negotiate numerous agreements for land exchanges, including the school trust lands swap, which still stands as the largest land exchange in U.S. history since the Louisiana Purchase. It resulted in important lands being preserved, greater certainty in the development of rural Utah and billions of dollars for the state's school trust.

So let this Governors Grove commemorate more than the names of the fortunate people who have the privilege of serving as the chief executive of our state. Let it serve as a monument to the good things that can come when people of good will cooperate, not for partisan advantage, but to improve the lives of people.

Michael O. Leavitt served and as a three-time elected governor of Utah. He also served in the cabinet of President George W. Bush as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary of Health and Human Services. Leavitt is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. He is the founder and chairman of Leavitt Partners.

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