ST. GEORGE — Utah's agricultural community is finding common ground with state and federal land agencies, and that's a positive difference from the way things went in the past, an analyst with the Governor's Office of Public Lands and Policy told a group of ranchers, farmers and land stewards on Thursday.

"There was a kind of disconnect between agency people and rural folks," Val Payne with the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office said at the Utah Farm Bureau conference held in St. George. "The connection rural folks have with the land isn't easily described. We need to recognize the importance of public lands to rural folks, just as much as we do with others."

When resource management plans or other issues involving use of public lands are involved, local input is needed, he added.

"As cooperating agencies (with the public), we are finding it's a much better way of doing business than we have done in the past," Payne said. "The way we used to do it, I believe, used to be based on mutual mistrust and suspicion. In some instances, and this was played on both sides, a certain level of arrogance."

Sitting down together, talking and working things through is paying off, he added.

"It gives you the chance to provide local input right at the beginning of the process. Hopefully you can affect the nature of the product that comes out," Payne said.

Among the issues to be discussed by local, state and federal agencies are the inherent conflicts between livestock and wildlife, motorized recreation on public lands, and the possible designation of more Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state.

"We've heard some discussion that having a Wild and Scenic River designation is a benefit to the local community, but that's anecdotal at this point," Payne said. "Most often our reaction to that type of designation is that it would be detrimental to water rights and users of water resources, so we need data to support or refute that concept."

Kathleen Clarke, deputy commissioner for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, also praised the state's agricultural community and its commitment to protecting public lands.

"Working with public lands and natural resources is always challenging," said Clarke. "As the West grows and people discover the wonders of public lands, they move here and want access, and we start to see conflicts. We are seeing this play out in a dramatic way throughout Utah."

The quick response to last year's massive Milford Flat Fire, which burned 567 square miles of land, killed two people and destroyed miles of fencing and other structures, is a phenomenal example of how cooperation between agencies can work, she said.

"There are going to be long-term challenges, and our efforts on behalf of the 80 ranchers who were affected hasn't ended, either," Clarke said. "We need to look long term at what caused this fire. What is going on in our ranges that fires are burning more acreage than ever before?"

Prime habitat for the protected sage grouse is being lost, which "increases the threat of that bird being listed as endangered," she said, adding, "that would not be good for anyone who loves working or playing on that land."

The need to aggressively fight the proliferation of cheatgrass, an invasive plant that burns like gasoline when dry, has reached critical mass, Clarke noted.

"We have to engage, battle, pre-treat and get rid of cheatgrass before it impacts not only our farms but our watersheds and the whole environment," she said.

Randy Julander, snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, reviewed the concept of global warming and climate change with the audience, urging them to "have skepticism in all things."

"The nexus between greenhouse gases and climate change is found in climate models," Julander said. "There is a huge spread of possible outcomes in climate models because people interpret things differently."

Measuring snowpack and interpreting the data is no simple matter since the type of sensor tools used to measure snowpack have changed and the vegetation in some areas is different, he said.

Recent studies that show snowpack around the West is declining and melting earlier didn't take any of that information into account, said Julander, adding only one of the study's authors contacted him for Utah's up-to-date data.

On the bright side, Julander said general water supply conditions across the state look "really, really good right now."

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