Newly appointed U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's speech before the Western Governor's Association in Park City recently hit all the right notes. She called for balance in the federal government's approach to land management, and she stated that there is an "appetite in the federal government to work with state governments to thoughtfully manage our land."
This approach included a promise that the Obama administration would not designate any new national monuments without consulting with local and state governments, alleviating worries that President Obama is planning to blindside Utah the way President Clinton did with the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly two decades ago.
Thematically, at least, Secretary Jewell seems to understand the needs and concerns of Utah in a way her predecessor did not. At the same time, amiable rhetoric cannot compensate for heavy-handed federal overreach, and despite the secretary's assurances that the Department of the Interior and Utah state government will do their best to "understand each other," there remains tremendous fodder for skepticism.
Consider, for instance, the president's renewed focus on executive action combating climate change, which will likely stifle attempts to accelerate shale oil production across the state. And as Jewell continually stressed the importance of balance and multiple use, she also downplayed the role of oil and natural gas in favor of tourism and recreation. While those are undeniably vital components of any land management strategy, they also are not the elements of multiple use that have come under fire in recent years. Easing opposition to expanded energy development in Utah would provide practical evidence that these renewed calls to cooperate with localities are more than just lip service.
It's also important to note that if they expect the Obama administration to be more flexible, some Utah lawmakers will need to temper their impulses to cut the federal government entirely out of the loop. Given that more than two-thirds of this state consists of federal land, it's foolhardy to believe Utah has the authority to override Washington. Making this relationship work will require genuine compromise instead of fiery speeches. Legislators should look for accommodation rather than confrontation.
Jewell, with her practical experience outside of government, seems to be presenting the state with an opportunity for a legitimate federal/state partnership in managing public lands that hasn't been available so far under this administration. While it's certainly possible that the hope for a better relationship will prove illusory, it makes no sense to give up before even getting started.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company