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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
David Gomez and his son Daniel ice fish in Fish Lake.

RICHFIELD, Sevier County — Each year in September, hundreds upon hundreds of ATV enthusiasts converge on this town for a jamboree celebrating all things outdoors.

The hundreds of miles of track that make up the Piute ATV Trail or the Shoshone Trail is what draws them here, and county leaders welcome their dollars.

Sevier County also boasts two strong economic assets with the SUFCO Coal Mine and Wolverine Oil — energy resources that helped land it on a prestigious top five list put out by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.

Beaver County, with its geothermal plants and wind farms, also landed in the top five for counties with "moderately managed" public lands that foster energy development but retain prime recreational opportunities.

The report, released this week, looked at the correlation between the economies of public lands and rural counties, examining factors like employment growth and per capita income. In a probe of seven Rocky Mountain Western states, including Utah, the analysis tapped more than 200 non-metropolitan counties.

From 1969 to 2009, for example, the report revealed that the top five "moderately managed" counties had employment growth of more than 100 percent, contrasted to 50 percent employment growth in counties that had less than 1 percent "protected lands."

"It's all about achieving balance," said Katie McKalip, a spokesperson with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of the three key groups that spearhead Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.

"Given the very tough economic times we are in as a nation, there is really no way you can ignore the economic value of resources such as public lands when you are looking at how these lands should be developed," she said. "Lands need to be managed in a balanced way that does not preclude energy development, for example, but comprehensively manages lands for outdoor recreation."

She said being able to play outdoors through off-roading or indulging in prime fishing or hunting are recreational opportunities that, combined with responsible energy development, provides jobs and a decent living so people afford to live in these places.

Sevier County Commissioner Gordon Topham said the report echoes what he has been saying for years: It's possible to have coal mines or oil companies and still keep large chunks of the county intact and scenic for people to enjoy.

"You can have a beautiful scenic area to go to and still develop it, but in the right way with the right technology. Conservation of land is not about staying off it completely. You can use it, just don't abuse it," Topham said.

Topham said such an approach has worked well in national parks, where people can still go off-road in certain areas and drive to scenic attractions.

SUFCO provides jobs for 200 miners, the Wolverine Oil company is producing oil and both support two big trucking companies to haul the products out of Sevier County, he said.

In Beaver County, commissioner Chad Johnson said clean energy has been tapped through a wind farm — First Wind — and through a pair of geothermal plants. 

"We believe it takes all kinds of energy. Both the wind farm and the geothermal plants produce a lot of jobs and a lot of tax revenue. It's been very good for the county."

At the same time, Johnson said the county boasts a popular destination for outdoor recreation in the Beaver Mountains and on the west side of the county, rock hounds congregate to hunt for stony treasures.

The report's message of allowing "responsible" energy development balanced against the backdrop of conserving public lands for their "outdoors" value mirrors a message widely touted by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who formed the Balanced Resources Council.

"Responsible energy development and the protection of Utah's environment are not mutually exclusive," he said in reaction to the report. "We can safeguard our natural wonders and pristine vistas while finding ways to responsibly develop Utah's vast energy potential. Both are critical to our future economic well-being, but the keyword is 'responsibly.' It comes down to good stewardship."

Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said it is true that responsible energy development can happen and pointed to the Utah examples of Anadarko and Bill Barrett Corp., both of which have left gas in the ground to protect wild places.

She offered less praise for state policies under the direction of Herbert, however, citing Utah's efforts to gain control of thousands of roads, routes or trails. She said that state control of those roads is in direct contradiction to its policy to protect sage grouse habitat because use of those roads would damage those areas for the bird.

"What you see from the state is that it is clear they talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk."