Meg Maguire says her first visit to Utah included an unsettling drive to Sundance ski resort.

Despite her final destination's beauty, Maguire said the excursion was diminished by a procession of billboards along I-15 in Salt Lake and Utah counties."I was amazed at their numbers," she said.

Still, it's a familiar sight across the nation. As president of Scenic America - a national organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the scenic character of the country's communities and countryside - Maguire dedicates her professional life to battling what she call "litter on sticks."

"We believe there are far too many billboards in this country, in Utah," said Maguire, who met with Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, last week to discuss local billboard policies.

Billboards strip communities of their distinctive character, devalue property and signal the beginning of blight, she said.

Utah ranks 35th in the nation for number of billboard structures on federal-aid highways, according to Scenic America. Maguire notes that ranking is conservative, because some Utah transportation districts did not respond to the organization's survey.

The Washington, D.C., resident adds Utah is also numbered among states that allow construction of new billboards in unzoned rural areas and let billboard operators cut down trees on public rights of way to improve view of private billboards.

"Citizens can change things" by fighting billboards and other forms of visual pollution at the grassroots level, Maguire said.

Start by putting lawmakers' "feet to the fire" on billboard policy and issues, she added.

"Legislators have to know the public cares," Maguire said, adding she was disturbed by the Salt Lake County Commission's decision last fall to ease billboard rules.

While no final decisions have been made to file billboard policy bills, Becker said he won't be surprised if the issue is discussed in next year's legislative session.

"A number of us are very concerned about the expansion and proliferation of billboards in the state and the Salt Lake Valley," Becker said.

Becker said he would like to let local governments have more control over billboard decisions.

The billboard industry reportedly already has the ear of local and federal elected officials. Industry representatives and PACs contributed more than $2 million to congressional candidates between 1990 and 1995, according to Scenic America.

Maguire has little patience with industry claims that billboard restrictions violate free speech.

"What kind of right does someone have to force us to look at something along our free spaces?" she asked.