New Utah environmental adviser: More unites us than divides us
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Much like Utah's diverse landscapes, the state's new environmental adviser to the governor is a study in contrasts.
Alan Matheson Jr. has hiked to Delicate Arch under a full moon and rappelled off the sandstone walls of a slot canyon. As an avid fly fisherman, his soul gets a jump start from the running waters of a stream.
Sporting suit and tie, Matheson has used his law degree to represent industry — an electrical utility, miners, farmers and irrigation districts who want to make use of the land's resources.
Logan born and Arizona raised, Matheson became the founding director of the Utah Water Project for Trout Unlimited in 2000, carving out new paths in the state's complicated arena of water law to help fish thrive and farmers make a few bucks off their water rights.
From there, he jumped into the public policy arena, asking top leaders to ask tough questions as head of Envision Utah — tackling future-driving topics such as transportation, protection of canyon watersheds and charting a course for the pollution-troubled Jordan River.
"I've worked on different sides of the issues, have an understanding of the various concerns," he said. "Maybe that puts me in a position to help bring folks together."
Matheson, the nephew of the late Gov. Scott Matheson and cousin of Congressman Jim Matheson, was tapped in September by Gov. Gary Herbert to replace Ted Wilson as his point man on environmental issues.
Wilson stepped down to take a job with Talisker, which runs Canyons ski resort in Park City.
The adviser position is key on Utah's public policy stage because of the multitude of issues that confront Herbert. Among them:
• Snake Valley and the controversial water-sharing agreement proposed between Nevada and Utah that would divvy up groundwater for a pipeline to Las Vegas.
• The ongoing compromises and legal battles involving claims to Civil War-era roads made by the state and various counties. Some of the so-called RS2477 roads cross pristine wilderness areas or are within national monuments. Some of the roads, too, have been used by decades if not centuries by farmers, ranchers and residents.
• Land exchanges and proposed land bills in various counties that would set aside some areas as wilderness.
Despite the rhetoric that may fly, the billable hours that may pile up by attorneys or the tempers that may stew around such issues, Matheson is undeterred by the negativity and instead says he sees fertile ground for hope.
"Maybe I am naive, but I believe people of good will can come together and make a difference."
In his work at Envision Utah, Matheson had the opportunity to travel the state, get down in the trenches and meet folks of all kinds.
"In working throughout Utah, there are good people everywhere. And people are pretty smart, but they reach different conclusions because they are operating from a different set of facts."
Matheson, 49, and a father of three, declares no political affiliation and sees himself as a mediator for those ready to square off over public lands issues.
His love affair with natural places is unabashed.
"When you get outside and see the unparalleled beauty of Utah, you feel some obligation to make sure that beauty is available to those who will follow."
He understands, though, that conversations about those obligations have to take place through a proper lens.
"You can't talk about the 'environment' in Utah — it is a loaded word. It separates people. But if you talk about the outdoors and nature and the chance to get outside in a place where you can recreate with your family, if you see it as a place to get away from a hectic world, maybe a place to find some spiritual insight — all those things resonate with people."
Matheson said Envision Utah, the nationally-recognized public and private partnership, conducted extensive values-based research to identify key issues for the state and craft a list of policy recommendations.
"The people of Utah have set values that cross political and religious, economic and ethnic lines," he said. "They are values that drive our decision making."
With that background in mind, Matheson said he believes even entrenched foes in these environmental issues have more in common than they think.
He said he's yet to meet someone in Utah who doesn't believe it has beautiful landscapes worthy of protection. At the same time, he said he hasn't heard anyone dispute the notion that people need to be able to make a living and support their family.
"Most people in this state understand that we need both and the issue is where you draw the line," he said. "In our research as we studied values, we found that what unites us is greater than what divides us."
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