Utah officials say a conservation group gave Utah an awful environmental report card partly because of philosophical differences, partly because of misinterpreting figures.

But the bad marks are also partly justified, officials admit.Renew America, based in Washington, ranked Utah 48th among the states in protecting the environment. Areas rated were forest management, solid waste recycling, drinking water protection, food safety and controlling the impact of growth on the environment.

Taking the points individually, here are some comments by Rick Piltz, director of state programs and editor of the report for Renew America, and responses to his statements by Utah officials.

Forest management

Utah has 16.2 million acres of forest, Piltz said. Of this, 4.3 million acres are owned by the state or private owners. Federal land isn't considered in the report.

Utah ranks 30th in terms of forest land not managed by the federal government. "But if you exclude fire control expenditure, it ranks 49th in its forestry program budget," he said.

Patrick D. Spurgin, director of the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry, said, "I would be inclined to agree that in competing with other agencies in general fund dollars, we have not fared particularly well."

Many states have a "comprehensive, environmentally sensitive forest practice law," Piltz said. Utah does not.

These laws include such aspects as protecting wildlife habitat, promoting reforestation on private forest land and protecting water quality.

"The state says it provides some technical assistance, but there are no economic incentives and no legal regulations to protect wildlife habitat on the private forest land," Piltz said.

Spurgin concedes Utah does not have a comprehensive forest management act. "But the Legislature makes its choices, and of course it's a conservative state, believing in the free market as the most efficient means of allocating its resources."

Solid waste recycling

Review America scored a solid hit with this one.

"There are 122 municipal landfills in the state, but there's virtually no (state) recycling program," Piltz said.

Dennis Downs, assistant director of the Utah Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste, said Rep. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, sponsored a bill to create a legislative task force on solid waste and recycling. It was supported by state Health Department professionals but was defeated in the latest session of the Legislature.

"So we're sort of struggling along," Downs said. "We're doing a few things in solid waste planning, but no part of our program is funded to do recycling."

Although private groups promote recycling, he'd like to see the state launch a public-awareness campaign.

"The state needs to get on the ball" in recycling, said Kenneth Alkema, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Health.

Protecting drinking water

"In the most recent year for which the data were available, fiscal 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency data indicated there were 518 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by public water supply systems in Utah, affecting 120,000 people - but the state had not taken any formal enforcement action," Piltz said.

By that, he said, the group means the state didn't haul anyone into court, issue injunctions, fine a water system or take some legally binding action.

That's somewhat misleading, Alkema said. Most of the violations were simply failures to monitor water quality. These were corrected and showed no problems.

In other cases, bacteria may have shown up on a water sample in a rural southern Utah area but disappeared in subsequent sampling.

Alkema said only three of the 518 violations were considered major, and they involved 10,000 people, not 120,000. "We were able to resolve all three," he said.

The state's philosophy is to use the lowest level of enforcement first, he said. If that doesn't work, as happened a few years ago, there's always court.

But the problem nearly always is corrected without hauling some town into court.

Still, Alkema said, "Utah needs to have a comprehensive groundwater protection program, and we don't yet." The state has scheduled hearings on groundwater rules that it has been developing for three years.

Food safety

Criticism involved the state's examining possible sources of food contamination, but it doesn't mean the state has unsafe food.

Some other states promote the reduced use of chemicals in food production, he said. "Fifteen states have begun programs for labeling organic food and certifying it."

Other states have laboratories that study more potential contaminants in food. Utah provided only $50,000 for biological pest control (rather than using chemicals), while some states gave millions.

"Utah's use of pesticides is very low compared to a lot of states because we don't really have the variety of agricultural products that a state like Iowa or Colorado would have," Alkema said.

The state has not found that pesticides are a major contaminant in groundwater, as they are in Iowa, he said.

The impact of growth on the environment

Utah's urban land area expanded by 121 percent between 1960 and 1980, Piltz said. The state needs to protect wetlands, acquire farmland and manage growth, hesaid.

That's another area where Utah's philosophy makes it stand apart. Years ago, the Legislature rejected an effort to undertake comprehensive land-use planning. The thought was that this smacked of socialism.

Another growth-related consideration was that 78 percent of Utahns live in counties where the air violates federal standards.

"We violate the standard in the four major counties, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties," Alkema said. "That's by far the majority of the people in the state.

"We're in, I'm afraid, good company. About half the people in the country live in areas where the standards are violated." And sometimes the air quality is much worse than in Utah.