1 of 8
Hugh Carey, Deseret News
Juan Palma, director of the Utah Bureau of Land Management, grew up as an itinerant farmworker.

SALT LAKE CITY — Juan Palma is having one of those only-in-America moments as he sits in his office in downtown Salt Lake City, so let’s run with it.

Only in America, he is saying, could the son of a Mexican, itinerant farmworker grow up to become the Utah state director for the U.S Bureau of Land Management.

Only in America could a boy who lived in migrant farm camps and picked cherries and grapes and pears … grow up to manage the BLM’s 23 million acres in Utah.

Only in America could a part-time typist rise to oversee nearly half of the state’s land.

“What are the odds?” he says.

The 59-year-old Palma is warm and affable, and he needs all of his charm for his job, which puts him in the middle of a debate that has simmered in the West for decades. On one side there are proponents of land restrictions and preservation and on the other side there are opponents of federal control over the use of state lands and those who want to use it for everything from mining to recreating to ranching. BLM land is 46 percent of the state, and that doesn’t include federal land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation or National Park Service.

No one from either side of the debate can say Palma is some slick, big-city bureaucrat who never got his hands dirty. “When I think about it, man, I remember looking out at the distance from rickety old cars and seeing the snow-capped mountains and forests,” he says. “I thought this is so beautiful. Only in American can this happen to come back later and manage those lands. Only in America can you take a migrant child and put him in this chair.”

He was the 11th of 12 children and they all worked the fields. His mother was the daughter of a Texas sharecropper who raised and picked cotton. His father came to the U.S. to escape civil war and met and married Juan’s mother in Texas. They had four children in Texas, then six more after moving back to Mexico, and two more after returning again to Texas, this time for good.

The family followed the crops. They picked lettuce and carrots in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, then went west to California, moving from town to town and a series of meager migrant camps. In the Santa Paula/Ventura region they were given small feathers with which to pollinate flowers in the spring. In the lower San Joaquin Valley they picked bell peppers and tomatoes. When summer came along, they picked grapes near Delano, California, spreading them on paper to be baked into raisins by the sun. Eventually they headed north to Washington state for more work.

“We didn’t have time to get into trouble,” says Palma. “We were always working. We were exhausted. Our hands were raw, our backs hurt. … People talk about two Americas. There are places out there that are like Third World countries.”

This was family life for 15 years, constantly on the move, the kids working dawn to dusk. The Palmas finally settled in Toppenish, Washington, on the Yakima Indian Reservation, where migrant workers were housed in long, dilapidated buildings that were divided into tiny apartments. They picked asparagus, then cherries, apricots, pears, sugar beets, hops and apples.

“We were below poor,” says Palma. “As a child I had two pairs of pants that I wore for a long time. We had no washing machine. We used washboards. When I was a teen, we still had an outhouse. It was a different world. It was survival mode.”

The Palma children were unable to attend school from April until October because they were working in the fields. Their poor English skills presented another obstacle when they could attend class. Several teachers took a special interest in Juan, mentoring and helping him with his studies and makeup work. He was a serious, if often-absent, student who realized then that education offered a way out.

“Someone took an interest in me, and that was one of the elements that helped me escape that life,” he says.

The other was religion. He and two of his sisters converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of the local Mormon leaders encouraged Juan to serve a church mission. He served two years in Peru, from 1975 to 1977, where Third World conditions didn’t faze him.

“Some of the missionaries had a hard time with it, but I didn’t,” he says. “The old apartment we lived in was OK with me and no different than where I had lived. I thought, 'This is terrific.' All we had to do is talk to people. It’s better than the fields.”

When he returned home, he enrolled at BYU and stayed for two years, with the assistance of grants. He married, started a family — he and wife Susan have three sons — and finished a degree in business management at Oregon State. It would be years before he decided on a career path.

He worked as a salesman well into his 30s, selling airtime on the radio, but decided rather belatedly that it wasn’t for him. He gave it up and started over by taking the lowest of jobs with the Forest Service. “I always liked the natural world and the feel and smell of dirt,” he says.” To get “a foot in the door,” he took a job as a part-time typist with the Forest Service in Oregon. After nearly a year of typing, he got work in the payroll department, and a few months later he landed a permanent, low-grade job as a budget analyst. He had bigger ambitions. In his free time, on his own initiative, he read a large, boring document about the Forest Service’s land-use plan. He had an epiphany.

“It was exactly what I wanted to do — how to use the land,” he says.

He took various Forest Service jobs in Montana, Oregon and Nevada and climbed up the ladder rapidly into various administrative roles — budget officer, administrative officer, district ranger, deputy forest supervisor and, after earning a master’s degree in environment sciences, forest supervisor for the Lake Tahoe Basin.

He left federal government work to become executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a highly controversial and politicized organization that oversees land use in the Lake Tahoe region, regulating everything from the number of sewer hookups to house colors and window sizes.

Returning to government employment, he was assigned to manage BLM lands, first in Grand Junction, Colorado, and then in Las Vegas, before moving to Virginia as the BLM’s new Eastern States director, overseeing all BLM lands east of the Mississippi.

In 2010, he was hired to manage Utah’s BLM land.

It’s a demanding job in a region that is touchy about land-use issues. Palma must balance the demands for mining, grazing, oil and gas, recreation and environmentalists who don’t want the land changed from its natural state. Palma views himself as the facilitator in the ongoing debate.

“We have a mandate to manage land for multiple uses, and along with that to sustain the environment,” he says.

Looking back, he sees a connection between his early work in the hot fields of the West to his current role as protector of lands.

“From my earliest days, I developed a deep appreciation of our nation’s lands,” he says. “Land is one of the forces that connects us all. … This is a wonderful endowment that we care for, for generations to come. That’s why I take this so seriously. We cannot screw it up.”