SALT LAKE CITY — Dueling concerns over grazing cutbacks and renegade federal law enforcement agents dominated a committee meeting on Utah's Capitol Hill, where lawmakers peppered top Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials.
The Wednesday discussion, while civil, showcased the frustration, fear and anger at play in the reluctant relationship rural Utah has with its federal partners when it comes to management of public lands.
"We as a state are heavily dependent on what you do in managing these lands. It is very, very important we have a working relationship," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and House chairman of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, adding that he represents residents of seven rural counties.
"They have a very, very difficult time understanding some of the decisions that come down," Noel said.
Lawmakers complained of a steady erosion of grazing allotments made by federal agencies that defer to the interests of environmental groups or have an anti-ranching agenda.
The Utah Farm Bureau's Randy Parker and Kane County Commissioner Dirk Clayson said uncertainty over grazing allotments is driving ranching families out of business and inflicting mental harm.
"The certainty issue is tremendous," Parker said. "The psychological impact on these families is tremendous."
Parker said ranchers are hearing requests that they should plan for reductions of up to 50 percent on the amount of federal land that is available for livestock grazing.
Clayson likened it to a retail shop owner being forced to operate under threat of a possible reduction in merchandising space.
"That lease may terminate in the next two or three years, but they're not sure. What would that do to the viability of any business? That is the kind of cloud that has been hanging over our ranchers for decades," he said.
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said the BLM arbitrarily canceled its contracts with county sheriffs' departments on the premise they were "illegal," but Utah was the only state in which that action was taken.
"This seems to be a little bit of a retribution decision," Cox said, adding that promises of new contracts have been only that.
Juan Palma, Utah head of the BLM, said there was not retribution involved in the decision on the contracts, which ultimately have to be approved by his Washington, D.C., superiors.
While Utah law enforcement has worked with federal agencies for years, both Cox and Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, voiced dismay over what they say is a new era in federal law enforcement behavior in which there is an excessive display of force by federal agents, and the BLM officials in Utah are dismissive at best.
Ivory pointed to the Nevada showdown the federal agency had with rancher Cliven Bundy, who was the target of a court order after he failed to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees.
"There were hundreds of agents armed heavily with Tasers and attack dogs going in to collect a fee or fine. We have not seen that before," Ivory said.
Cox said he traveled to Nevada at the time of the Bundy crisis to convey only that Utah did not want to host the errant cattle.
While he said he did not support the rebellious ranchers' actions, he said his sentiments were "drowned out by the size and force of what was seen there."
"I was really taken aback at what I saw. There were over 200 federal agents," Cox said. "I worked on a ranch and never seen two helicopters bring in five cows. I cannot imagine the amount of money that was spent and wasted."
When Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, suggested that Utah goes begging for federal non-cooperation with its "bellicose" and "arrogant" behavior, Cox took exception to the remark.
"I am not willing to take that responsibility," he said. "This is not kindergarten."
Cox said despite the best efforts by Utah officials to negotiate on array of contentious issues with the BLM's top law enforcement agent in charge, the state has been shut down.
Palma said agents carry out rules they did not create, and added that his office is continually working at improving relationships with the counties, ranchers and others who grapple with tension over land management decisions.
"My response is that we can sit down together, and I believe that our employees from the BLM will sit down and talk about these problems and what some of these solutions to those problems are beyond the legal process," he said.
Palma added he's never been to a BLM meeting in his career in which there is talk by the agency to "undo grazing."
Allen Rowley, forest supervisor with the Ashley National Forest, said his approach is to work with ranchers up front and make sure they're aware of any cutbacks that are coming.
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