MIDWAY — With millions of acres of public lands within its borders, Utah faces some interesting challenges regarding how it manages those lands for generations to come.
Gov. Gary Herbert says that among the priorities will be balancing recreation, commerce and environmental concerns in ways that will serve the interests of all Utahns and visitors going forward.
Speaking Wednesday at the Utah Outdoor Summit at the Zermatt Resort in Midway, the governor said the state must develop strategies that will make proper use of its public lands, take into consideration long-term impacts and remain environmentally sensitive to Mother Nature.
"We need to have a variety of opportunities out there and bring in the appropriate balance of preservation and yet accessibility to the public in all of its different forms," he said. Having spaces available for various uses will offer opportunities for play and commerce that will serve the residents of the state economically and recreationally, he said.
"Whether there is a monument or not, this land is going to be preserved and protected (with) rules and regulations put in place about how you can use it," Herbert explained. "All of us want to have preservation and protection of our beautiful public lands."
Noting that the Bureau of Land Management sets regulations for specific uses of public lands, Herbert said that how the agency chooses to implement those standards can be impactful, such as monument designations.
Herbert also said allowing leaders of surrounding communities to have a voice in the land's management is an important part of any future planning, particularly tribal communities.
"We want also for the Native Americans to have more say on protections of the Bears Ears area," he said. "That's still on the table. We're trying to see if we can get that done legislatively."
The summit convened approximately 400 outdoor industry professionals for the three-day event that includes workshops, outdoor recreation tours and service projects. Herbert said maintaining the viability of all of the state's public lands while still providing economic opportunities to nearby residents, private commercial interests and adequate access to recreation enthusiasts are some of the primary goals of state leaders regarding those important areas.
"With the BLM, we ought to find that coming together in harmony are not mutually exclusive ideas," he said.
Meanwhile, regarding the annually increasing visitorship at Utah's national and state parks, Tom Adams, director of the state Office Outdoor of Recreation, said figuring out a plan to manage the growing numbers of people going to the parks will be key to maintaining the vitality of these local treasures.
"This year alone, we've put $1 million into public lands to protect the trails and resources that we love and care about and add new ones," he said.
Rick May, senior national adviser for the U.S. Department of Interior, said overuse of national and state parks is a significant issue for public lands across the country. He noted that thoughtful planning is underway to mitigate the impacts of so many people potentially "loving our parks to death."
"We have the same situation across the country," he said. "Our (national) parks saw 330 million people go through last year and our state parks say 800 million people go through them."
He said without developing better visitation scheduling and maintaining park facilities properly each year, we could find ourselves in a dire circumstance where fewer people choose to return to the parks and public lands.
"What happens is the visitor experience is eroded," May said. Because excessive use in peak periods has become such an issue, visitation has decreased in some popular destinations such as Yellowstone National Park.
"There is a way that we can make changes so that everyone can have a piece of the pie," he said. Among the changes are to increase the number of trails within public land recreation areas so that visitors are more spread out and not concentrated in a few popular locales, he said.
"We're looking at how can we create more trails? How can we connect those trails so that there are more options for people?" May queried rhetorically. He also said that devising ways to provide commercial opportunities for communities and tribes near national parks can be a major step toward improving lives of people in nearby rural areas around the country.
Addressing the overuse issue will take careful thought and planning, but will ultimately make things better for visitors and potentially the host communities near the recreation areas, he added.
Locally, Ed Robinson, director of the BLM Utah office, said the agency is in the process of developing a land use plan for the reduced Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante areas — two monument designated sites.
"In those plans, it talks about use and access and balance," he said. "We've put alternatives in asking, 'How are we going to manage that respect to the sacred nature (to the Native American tribes) and balance that with (other considerations)?""
He said consultations with local tribes are helping to develop plans that are amenable to multiple users while maintaining the proper respect for the historic nature of the public lands.
"We're trying to balance access to what the local tribes feel is important and to allow folks to see and understand (the land and what it stands for)," Robinson said.