Sunday, January 24, 2016

BLM on the Hot Seat

Tensions flare in St. George at public land talk

Posted By on January 24, 2016, 3:43 PM

Supporters of both sides of the public lands debate attend the congressional hearing in St. George. - SCREEN SHOT BY ERIC ETHINGTON
  • Screen shot by Eric Ethington
  • Supporters of both sides of the public lands debate attend the congressional hearing in St. George.
A pair of congressional meetings in St. George on Friday, Jan. 22, heated up as Utah’s congressmen and local ranchers expressed frustration with the Bureau of Land Management. At the meetings, tensions between those who support developing public lands and the federal land agency tasked with managing them grew so intense that a Utah state representative predicted there could possibly be bloodshed in the future.

After presenting a Public Lands Initiative intended to resolve land-use conflicts in eastern Utah at the state Capitol last week, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, Republican representatives for Utah's 1st and 3rd districts respectively, appeared at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands in St. George. The oversight hearing was called to ensure that local concerns were being addressed in the wake of the BLM's recent release of a proposed management plan for national conservation areas (NCAs).

Before a packed audience at the Dixie Convention Center, Bishop, Chaffetz and Rep. Chris Stewart, Republican for the 2nd District—accused the BLM of violating the spirit and perhaps the letter of Congress’ 2009 law, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act.

According to conservatives on the committee, the act required that a new transportation corridor would be developed through a desert tortoise land preserve. Jenna Whitlock, acting director of the Utah BLM, countered that the 2009 law doesn’t specifically require that the road be built, “The act requires the BLM to identify one or more alternatives.”

In attendance was Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who backed up Whitlock’s claims. Reading from a 2008 congressional testimony, Lowenthal quoted then-Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who was the author of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, as saying “Congressman [Jim] Matheson and I have agreed. We have agreed to remove the northern corridor [from the bill].”

But the transportation corridor wasn't the only complaint the conservatives brought with them. Republican St. George Mayor Jon Pike complained that in the six years the BLM spent developing the proposed management plan, not once was he, his predecessor, or the city council of St. George ever consulted.

Whitlock didn’t deny that the BLM hadn’t directly worked with the St. George city government but noted the agency had taken in more than a thousand comments in the past few years and was considering "each one." Whitlock also pointed out the BLM's management plans were only proposals, and that more input would be needed before the final draft was released.

Two hours after the hearing, Reps. Bishop, Stewart, and Chaffetz convened a congressional “Listening Session,” where the three congressmen heard comments from constituents about federal land agencies. Although more than a hundred residents turned out, the 14 speakers were preselected by the congressmen’s offices. The vast majority of speakers were adamant in their dislike of federal land agencies, particularly the BLM and the Forest Service.

Randy Parker of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation said, “We are seeing the systematic dismantling of ranchers’ ability to graze their livestock. The BLM and the Forest Service are attacking livestock grazing and water rights,” he said. Parker also claimed that the number of ranching families in the area has been reduced by more than 60 percent since the 1950s, and that he believes that is “entirely the fault of federal agencies’ policies and grazing fees."

Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman echoed the words of other speakers, claiming that there is a vast “collusion scheme between federal agencies and special interest [environmental] groups.”

One of the few speakers to defend conservation of Utah’s public lands was Ty Markham, a former Torrey, Utah, town council member, who also owns a bed & breakfast and a ranch. Markham agreed that the majority of people in southern Utah, including her, rely on public lands for their livelihoods. But she argued that the far more economically sound policy would be to conserve the lands to capitalize on the ever-growing tourism industry, rather than industries that are deteriorating and would permanently damage the land. “We need good jobs year-round that aren’t subject to boom-and-bust economies and energies,” said Markham, “We need our representatives to support our world-class scenery and recreation, that 20 million visitors every year come and spend $7 billion and support more than 100,000 jobs to see.”

But state Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, disagreed, saying that the BLM and other federal agencies are acting illegally by having federal law enforcement agencies working on these public lands. Noel calls it “ridiculous” that a Utahn could get pulled over for a broken tail light by a BLM officer. “The only legitimate authority,” said Rep. Noel, “is the county sheriffs.” Noel went on to say that if federal land agencies continue to impede the development of public lands in Utah, he predicts it could end badly. “This has got to stop,” Noel exclaimed, “There will be bloodshed. If this continues, there will be bloodshed, I foresee it now."

Eric Ethington is a journalist, activist and researcher. He also works for Political Research Associates. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington.
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