Utah public-land issues debated over dinner

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 26 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

In the end, they decided to buy each other dinner, agreeing to disagree on their starkly contrasting points of view when it comes to management of public lands.

At a lively presentation hosted Tuesday by the Friends of Alta, attorney Pat Shea and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, verbally squared off over how much local and state interests should trump the federal control of public lands.

The sparring — it was all civil and polite — was punctuated with an appearance by Gov. Gary Herbert, who stressed to the crowd that only "unprecedented partnerships" built on intense collaboration would solve issues of contention and dispute.

"The development of natural resources and being good stewards of the land are not mutually exclusive ideas," Herbert said.

The governor said his template for a workable compromise is the recent conservation easement penned with an environmental group that preserves Draper land destined for a commuter rail station. The land was deemed "ecologically and archaeologically" sensitive, especially given the presence of artifacts from a 3,000-year-old Native American village.

Herbert said developers, transportation officials, open-space advocates and Native Americans all saw value in the land, but for different reasons.

"This was about people coming together and putting their biases in check," he said. "As a result, a compromise was born."

Noel, one of the organizers of a coalition advocating greater local control and access to public lands, has made it clear he's no fan of the federal government, which he says has been overly restrictive with its rules that affect 66 percent of land in Utah.

Such control hampers not only ranching, mining and other industry interests but is elitist, cutting off access to those who simply want to enjoy public lands, Noel said.

"I just think there needs to be a balance," he said. Waving a hand toward the expanse of the lodge hosting the event, Noel added that he didn't believe such a structure could be built under today's restrictive practices.

Shea, who is representing environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, also made clear he believes a resource-driven, short-term assessment of public lands existing for only man's benefit is a myopic view.

"Imagine what the West would be like if we didn't have a Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, if we didn't have a Bryce, if we didn't have a Zion, didn't have a Grand Canyon. … They make us whole as a nation," he said.

Those national parks, the country's national monuments, Shea said, do not belong just to residents of Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming or Utah but to the "citizens of the United States."

Noel countered that he by no means advocates shedding all of the public lands in Utah. But what the Obama administration has done of late has been "overkill," he said. "It is going way beyond the pale in terms of these environmental regulations."

Chris Montague, director of conservation programs for the Utah chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said such divergent views demonstrated in Tuesday's debate between Shea and Noel are reflective of the problem on a larger scale, where philosophical shifts have widespread impacts.

"It seems when one persuasion of this political battle wins election, then policy on public lands dances to that tune," Montague said. "Does that really serve the public interest, this whipsaw effect?"

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company