Wharton: Utahn takes over powerful Forest Service job
Dave Whittekiend is certainly not a household name along the Wasatch Front. The guess here is the vast majority of northern Utah residents have no clue what he does in his new job as supervisor of the Uinta-Cache-Wasatch National Forest.
Yet the recently appointed U.S. Forest Service official ranks as one of the state's most powerful federal employees, especially to the millions who use the 2.2 million acres of land he manages.
Consider this: The federal empire he oversees includes eight wilderness areas, some of Utah's most important ski areas, campgrounds, trails, reservoirs, fishing areas, scenic byways and mountain peaks. It also serves as the source of drinking water for a thirsty and growing population.
In an average year, 9.1 million visitors visit the Uinta-Cache-Wasatch, usually putting it in the top five most-visited forests in the United States.
It is also a place filled with controversies that include the SkiLink lift proposal, schemes to connect the Cottonwood Canyons with Park City, proposed ski resort expansion, overcrowding in Mill Creek Canyon, watershed protection, private inholdings and Utah state government leaders' goal of taking over all federal lands.
This is the environment Whittekiend, who was born in Cedar City and received a master's degree from Brigham Young University, faces as he returns to the state from jobs in places such as Missouri and Maryland. And there is also the difficulty that has come with the recent merger of the Wasatch-Cache and Uinta National Forests, which has created its own set of internal problems with new people in new jobs. The fact that the forest offices are moving from longtime bases in federal buildings in Salt Lake City and Provo to South Jordan in July makes things even more complicated.
When I interviewed Whittekiend recently, he was just finishing his second week in the new job. It was easy to see he was getting up to speed on some of the controversies and nuances of the powerful position.
Asked about SkiLink, where a bill before Congress would transfer about 31 acres of U.S. Forest Service property to The Canyons ski resort to build a gondola connecting the Park City resort with Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon specifically and expand the ski resort generally, the supervisor was vague.
"There are strong, passionate feelings on both sides of that issue," he said of SkiLink. "To me, that's good. The public is involved and engaged. The ski areas are working with us and involving the public in whatever they propose to do, including to expand, to change their management or to expand their summer use. â¦ Other groups are not as enthusiastic about that. We need to make sure they are engaged and heard in the decision."
Though aware of Utah's position of wanting to take over most federal lands in the state, Whittekiend said his initial meetings with state officials have been cordial with an emphasis on partnerships and working together.
"If the state actually went through the process and did claim these lands, I'd be out of a job," said the father of four who is an avid fly fisher and mountain biker, owns a drift boat and, as an adventure racer, hopes to compete in the Wasatch 100 in 2013. "But I did not get the sense that they have an anti-federal agenda."
He quoted former U.S. Forest Service chief and Wasatch-Cache supervisor Dale Bosworth as saying one of the four major threats to national forests is unmanaged recreation.
"We are not growing any new national forests," Whittekiend said. "There is a lot more demand for recreation. It's a real tightrope. You can't have every use on every acre. It takes a lot of management. We need to have a designation of areas for people to recreate in. We are working hard to balance that with a critical resource, drinking water, coming out of this area. We can't allow increased degradation."
Thus, a new leader takes over a powerful position facing difficult decisions of how to use national forests to meet the needs of recreation, industry and wildlife while still protecting drinking water. It's not an easy job.