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My view: Utah needs a balanced public lands policy

By Alan Matheson

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Last month, my son and I fished several streams in the Uinta Mountains. We hiked through spectacular canyons, encountered abundant wildlife, caught our share of trout and continued to build a special relationship — all on public lands.

Reflecting on this experience, I looked beyond what will be a cherished personal memory and considered the social implications of our trip (revealing the twisted mind of a policy guy). We contributed to the economy of a struggling rural community. We stayed in a hotel, ate several meals at the two restaurants in town and purchased supplies at a general store — each enterprise locally owned. We also burned through a lot of gas, affecting our nation's trade imbalance, security and environment.

More recently, I met with the leadership of the Outdoor Industry Association to follow up on Gov. Gary Herbert's commitment to develop an outdoor recreation vision for Utah. The meeting was positive, cordial and productive. The OIA leaders talked about the importance of beautiful and accessible natural areas where people can use outdoor products. They also volunteered that their industry relies on oil and gas development to manufacture and distribute their products.

These experiences reminded me that we live in a complex world. Almost all aspects of life involve economic and environmental trade-offs. The overly simplistic "development vs. preservation" rhetoric fails to recognize that we need both. As Herbert repeatedly says, our policies should strike a balance, allowing us to develop necessary resources in a responsible way while maintaining the beauty and availability of Utah's unparalleled natural treasures.

In pursuing this balance, we should acknowledge key realities and principles:

A sound economy gives us the resources to educate our children, provide essential social services, develop needed infrastructure and enhance our air, water and land. On a personal level, it also prevents the emotional and physical harm associated with unemployment.

Utah enjoys a quality and diversity of beautiful places and recreational opportunities found nowhere else in the world. These lands supply much of our clean water and air; attract new businesses and workers; host active recreation with family and friends; and feed emotional and spiritual renewal.

Oil and gas development and outdoor recreation and tourism are fundamental pillars of Utah's economy, especially in rural communities. History cautions that a focus on only one area would leave us economically vulnerable. There is security in diversification.

Most people agree that there are places in Utah appropriate for development and other places best left alone. Where lands have both recreational and development values, we can find the right approach through informed and civil dialogue. We've done it before.

Our decisions and actions today will affect our lands and economy for generations. We must proceed with prudence, keeping a long-term perspective.

Public access to lands for hiking, fishing, hunting, climbing, skiing and other outdoor activities is a cherished part of our heritage and should be safeguarded.

The federal land management system, like the land itself, is in disrepair. Driven by endless, expensive lawsuits and process more than by science, federal management has rendered our public lands vulnerable to catastrophic fire, invasive species, beetle kills and other threats. Strained federal budgets leave little hope that future funding will be available to address these challenges.

Utah should have a greater role in public land management. Utahns care about our lands. We are the best managed state. We have a balanced budget. We are nationally recognized for our watershed restoration work. We are people of good will who know how to get things done. We can manage public lands for improved economic yield, environmental health and recreational experience.

Responsible resource development and careful stewardship of our natural treasures are essential to advancing Utah's economy and quality of life. Let's skip the war of words and engage constructively in the critical work of achieving both.

Alan Matheson is Gov. Gary Herbert's senior environmental advisor.

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