ST. GEORGE — Four U.S. congressmen spent several hours Friday hearing a litany of complaints asserting federal land management agencies are harming families and livelihoods and need to be reigned in — if not eliminated altogether.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, convened the session in St. George — part of his congressional district — to let county leaders and others air their views on federal public lands management in Utah.
The list of grievances was long: grazing reductions, wild horse and burro overpopulation, agencies colluding with environmental groups in illegal, backdoor meetings, heavy-handed law enforcement tactics and dismissive attitudes by faceless bureaucrats that are harming rural life in Utah.
"Is there any question or any wonder why people are angry? It seems glaringly obvious to me why people are angry," Stewart said.
"It did not used to be this way, and it does not have to be this way in the future."
Commissioners from six rural counties in Utah implored Stewart and Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, as well as Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, to fix what's wrong with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, emphasizing they're at the breaking point.
"Elected officials have tried to protect their constituents from the overreach the best we can, but it is tough to compete with special interest groups," said Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson. "Congress is really our last, best hope for solving this."
Iverson and others blasted agencies for "sue and settle" policies that have left Western lands in paralysis for grazing, timber production, ranching and other uses.
Rep. Mike Noel says to be clear: he did not call for blood. He was commenting on the federal public lands angst that is deepening #utpol— Amy Joi O'Donoghue (@Amyjoi16) January 22, 2016
"Range management is more a result of lawsuit than science," Iverson said. "Special interest groups sue the land management agencies and they agree to settle on terms that do not benefit the general public and are almost never disclosed. There is an overabundance of failed public policies."
Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson described struggling ranchers held hostage by the proliferation of wild horses that are ruining a drought-striken range for cattle, wildlife and other uses.
Pearson, a rancher herself, said the situation is dire.
"Producers have exhausted their financial reserves, have lost their faith in federal agencies and have been backed into a corner by those agencies and so-called environmentalists and advocacy groups," she said. "This grief has caused the uprisings that we see in Nevada, Oregon, and quite possibly in Utah."
Westerman, who said the BLM does not operate in his state, said it was clear to him there is a problem that has to be addressed.
"We are all going to have disagreements on something as passionate as how federal public lands are used. It is more the process that I am worried about. Broken promises. Collusion. Lack of trust. Closed door meetings, circumvention of the law and double standards. Those are not the kind of words that are beneficial to our country regardless of what location you are at."
Stewart told the crowd he is committed to finding a solution given the realities that are playing out in Utah and elsewhere in the West.
"You cannot protect Utah families if you don't give them hope for the future," he said. "And you can't give them hope for the future if they feel like the federal government has a boot at their throat."