Robert Gehrke: How much sway does the billboard industry have in Utah? This story is a pretty good indication.

Robert Gehrke

The Capitol Reef Scenic Byway stretches 64 miles along Highway 24 from Loa in the west, through Capitol Reef National Park, to Hanksville in the east.

Billboards, generally speaking, are not allowed.

The same is true of the Provo Canyon Scenic Byway between Heber and Provo. And the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway between Kamas and Evanston.

The reason seems pretty obvious: Billboards aren’t conducive to the natural beauty that we have sought to preserve.

According to the state tourism office, Utah has 19 state-designated scenic byways that highlight “a state road network with unparalleled vistas and heritage.” But just because they have been deemed worthy of protection now, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

Last week I wrote about the extent to which billboard companies have gone to influence state legislators, throwing around hundreds of thousands of dollars to overturn city ordinances and gut state laws that make it difficult for them to operate — in Salt Lake City, yes, but statewide.

There is, however, a story that didn’t really fit into that column that I think reflects the extent to which they have been able to manipulate the system.

In 2016, then-Rep. Mike Noel sponsored a bill that allowed property owners to petition a scenic byways committee to “segment” these byways — essentially knock out chunks that are considered “nonscenic.”

So let’s say a billboard company has some property along one of these byways and wants to put a sign on the property. They can petition local officials to greenlight the project. If the request is rejected, they have the option of asking an administrative law judge to review — and possibly overrule — the decision.

There are eight individuals the state has chosen to hear such appeals. One of them, it turns out, is Nate Sechrest, who, until last year, was general counsel for Reagan Outdoor Advertising, one of the largest billboard companies in the country, and currently is listed as a registered lobbyist for the company. In that capacity, he helped write Noel’s bill and testified in favor of it during legislative hearings.

Sechrest is also listed as president of Utahns for Independent Government, a political action committee funded almost exclusively by Reagan Outdoor.

Those two entities — Reagan Outdoor and the billboard PAC — have made nearly $825,000 in direct contributions and donated billboard space since 2015 to hundreds of political candidates across the spectrum — from those running for city council or mayor to county offices to governor, Republicans and Democrats.

At this point you might be asking, “How the hell does that happen?”

“It’s a very good question,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism and, in that capacity, the chairwoman of the Scenic Byways Committee.

When state purchasing put the contract out to bid, there were few criteria for the selection — an attorney with three years experience at administrative law, a mailing address, a phone, a car and the ability to do a conflict screen — and Sechrest met the threshold. “We didn’t really have any alternative but to include him on the list,” Varela said.

“It was kind of a surprise that there was the potential for someone with such a long history of involvement and passion around the scenic byway discussion … to be considered as an objective and disinterested judge,” she said.

Varela noted that there has not been a segmentation petition since Sechrest was chosen as an administrative judge, and, if there is, the judges are required to disclose their potential conflicts of interest, so her belief is he would not be allowed to hear any billboard cases. But, she added, “we haven’t been through a situation that tests it.”

And perhaps it won’t be tested. But it does reflect the extent to which the billboard companies have managed to achieve their goals, legislatively and otherwise.

In recent years, the industry got legislation passed making it more difficult and more expensive for cities to move billboards, stymieing redevelopment projects. They have passed legislation allowing them to make billboards taller, notwithstanding local ordinances.

They have tried repeatedly to override city ordinances and make it easier for them to replace traditional billboards with the bright, flashing digital billboards — how would you like one of those next to your home?

Rest assured, they’ll be back to try again, because there is a lot of money on the line for them and, frankly, running to the Legislature has worked for them in the past. And each time they’re successful, it is another victory for big-money special interests at the expense of local residents’ ability to determine for themselves what they want — or don’t want — in their communities.

Robert Gehrke is news columnist for The Tribune. Twitter: @RobertGehrke