To me this effort to transfer public lands is sending a very strong message that if we do not like what you are doing, we will just manage the lands ourselves. And if we don't feel like we can be engaged, we will get somebody in there that we do think we can engage with. —Forest Service supervisor Dave Whittekiend
SALT LAKE CITY — The head of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest headquartered in Utah's capital city is taking the state's takeover bid on federal public lands seriously and says it is a wakeup call for better public engagement.
"We as a federal agency, the forest service, need to figure out how to better involve people," said Forest Service supervisor Dave Whittekiend. "Whether we think we are involving them or not, if they feel like they are not involved, that is their reality."
Whittekiend is in charge of a forest that covers nearly 2.2 million acres in northern Utah and southwest Wyoming that is ranked as one of the most visited forests in the country, pulling in nine million visitors a year — more than the state's five national parks combined.
In his post since June of 2012, Whittekiend said he has made it a priority to make his agency more responsive, adding that the state's passage of the Transfer of Public Lands Act that same year demonstrates why it is so critical.
"We are trying to figure out ways to be more engaged with the state Legislature and have them understand some of the stuff that we are working on and gain a better understanding of their perspective."
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said federal forest management policies have plunged millions of acres in the West into such poor health and overgrowth that communities, watersheds and wildlife are in serious jeopardy.
"There's extreme deterioration in our forest health under conditions that tie David's hands and tie his fellow rangers' and supervisors' hands to manage the forests for both health and productivity as they used to," Ivory said. "It is not David; it is federal policies and litigation that tie David's hands."
Ivory is the architect of the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which set the state on the path to demand the federal government cede title to certain lands that proponents say were promised upon Utah becoming a state. Those lands include forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.
Since its passage nearly three years ago, Utah leaders have set up a commission to examine the ramifications and responsibilities that would come with new control of the 30 million acres in question and are in the process of arranging for outside counsel to assess the legal viability of Utah's efforts. Multiple other Western states are caught up in the same political momentum and the effort has received the endorsement of the Republican National Committee.
With an economic study, too, that said Utah could profit from the lands acquisition under certain conditions, critics are becoming more vocal in highlighting what is at stake.
Whittekiend said he heard the state's public lands attorney, Tony Rampton, speak at a rollout event for an economic report associated with the effort, and the words struck home.
"He made a statement that what is really driving this is a feeling that people have that they are not able to be engaged, that they are not able to be involved."
So, Whittekiend organized a field trip.
He got the other forest supervisors in the state and most of the district rangers, and dressed in full Forest Service uniform, went up to the State Capitol earlier this month.
"To me this effort to transfer public lands is sending a very strong message that if we do not like what you are doing, we will just manage the lands ourselves. And if we don't feel like we can be engaged, we will get somebody in there that we do think we can engage with."
Whittekiend said the response from many of the lawmakers was positive, and the public was genuinely curious about the agency and the role it plays.
"I think they just want to hear more from us, they would like to see us do more vegetation management. There are those who would like to see more access and some of what I am trying to get out there is to say that we are not just a bureaucracy, but individuals working for an agency and trying to manage these lands."
Ivory said he is a bit surprised to see what he called Whittekiend's "politicking" and stressed that regardless, the abysmal conditions of the forests speak to a need for better management.
"We are one spark away from going up in flames and having are watersheds being gone. That is a huge concern for the second most arid state in the nation," Ivory said.
Whittekiend said the forest service is allowing the removal of beetle-kill trees by harvesters, but there's a process that has to be followed, and it is not to the satisfaction of critics.
"However this plays out (the public lands transfer) it will play out. That is way above my pay grade. What I want to make sure I am doing is communicating with folks and letting them know what we are doing on this particular forest, and hopefully the other forest supervisors are doing the same thing as well."
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