For years, Mike Styler has run a 400-acre farm near Delta where he learned just how much water can disappear as it travels through an unlined irrigation ditch.
After lining less than a mile of a ditch — used by three generations of Stylers — with concrete, he watched how his usual 12-cubic-foot share overwhelmed the channel.
Styler was able to cut back the flow by 2 cubic feet per second and receive just as much water on his crops. That experience drove home just how much water Utah growers can avoid using through simple measures, a lesson he tried to put into practice as head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the past 14 years.
”First of all, we’ve got to have conservation. Everything you conserve is available to be used,” said Styler, whose last day on the job was Friday after a combined 26 years in state government, including 12 in the Utah House.
The avuncular Styler headed the sprawling agency, one of the state’s largest with 1,300 employees, in a way that, by many accounts, tried to balance the sometimes disparate missions of its seven divisions. DNR has to accommodate drilling and mineral extraction, while at the same time nurturing wildlife habitat, developing public recreation and protecting water sources. These missions are not always a seamless fit and can work at cross purposes, as may have been evident before Styler’s tenure when the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) earned a reputation, deservedly or not, for heavy-handedness in the name of safeguarding habitat.
David Ure, who now heads Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), credits Styler for getting the agency to be more flexible, particularly at DWR.
“Mike has made them public servants,” said Ure, a Kamas rancher. “The DWR is no longer a Gestapo. Now they are working with landowners and the public for the best interests of wildlife and the public.”
Under Styler’s leadership, according to Ure, DNR improved coordination with SITLA, the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Agriculture and Food, three important agencies whose roles overlap with those of DNR.
“I don’t believe there is a turf battle anymore,” Ure said. “If there is a problem, one of the four of us picks up the phone and says, ‘Let’s work it out.’”
Styler will be succeeded by Brian Steed, a former Utah State University scholar who served as Rep. Chris Stewart’s chief of staff and most recently as acting director of the federal Bureau of Land Management.
DNR’s divisions include Wildlife Resources; Oil, Gas and Mining; State Parks and Recreation; Forestry, Fire and State Lands; Water Resources; Water Rights; and the Utah Geological Survey.
Styler believes his most crucial accomplishment, besides leaving the state’s natural resources in better shape, is ensuring these varied agencies coordinate their work.
“We’ve brought the divisions together,” Styler said. “Sometimes there's a potential conflict between oil, gas and mining and wildlife, so we've got them talking. [Division of] Oil, Gas and Mining actually employed some biologists.”
Styler believes the involvement of wildlife biologists has helped keep drilling out of sight of sage grouse nesting grounds, big game migration corridors and other places.
“They’ve found out that they can minimize the conflicts by talking,” said Styler, who got his start in public service as an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher and Millard County commissioner. Gov. Mike Leavitt appointed him to the Utah House 1993 to fill the seat vacated by Leonard Blackham, then Gov. Jon M. Huntsman selected him to lead in DNR in 2005.
Styler’s learning curve was not steep, thanks to his years heading the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.
“I loved all the issues that natural resources is involved in, so I asked for that assignment in the Legislature, and then I came and spent a lot of time with the agencies and said, ‘Show me what you do and help me understand your budget.’”
Styler’s love for hunting helped drive him to negotiate hard with SITLA bosses, who have insisted DWR pony up compensation for allowing the public to stalk game or access trout streams on trust lands. As a result, Styler won an agreement 12 years ago, guaranteeing hunter access to 3.4 million acres. That arrangement was renewed last year for 15 years — at a cost of $1 million a year, which is transferred from the general fund to the permanent endowment supporting public education.
“Mike and I have been friends for 25 years. We have had some knock-down, drag-outs over hunter access, but, at the end of the day, I don’t know if either one of us had a total victory, but we all came away thinking we did what was right,” said Ure, whose own tenure in the Legislature coincided with Styler’s. “Mike is for the wildlife and me for the school kids. It was never personal, but we always fight for what we thought was fair and equitable for both sides.”
The biggest prize on Styler’s conservation to-do list has yet to be realized. For at least a decade, he has tried to acquire SITLA’s 28,000-acre Tabby Mountain block, mostly in Duchesne County, to manage as a wildlife preserve open to hunting. A $40 million deal fell through this year after SITLA board members concluded the agency might get a better offer if they open up a sale to other potential buyers.
Styler is undeterred.
“What we envision there — we still are going to do this because we’re going to get it — will be [Utah’s] first state forest managed jointly between State Parks and Forestry, Fire and State Lands. [ It also] will have a management piece with [DWR], so three of our agencies will share management authority there,” Styler said. “They will improve trailheads, put in restrooms. It’s both backcountry skiing and ATV, prime elk and deer migration area.”
He believes a deal still can be reached through land exchanges. DWR holds parcels obtained through the federal government and must be managed as wildlife habitat. However, some of these pieces, like one in Wasatch County, are encircled by residential development, so they are losing their habitat value, while their development value increases. Styler sees a win-win if such patches could be traded for trust lands that are good wildlife habitat and offer little development potential.
“This wildlife value can be transferred to another piece of property,” Styler said, “so we’re talking to Wasatch County and Duchesne County and SITLA about doing some property exchanges to help us get all or part of Tabby Mountain.”
One of the biggest jolts of Styler’s tenure came in 2011 after a scathing legislative audit of State Parks’ huge operating deficit. Lawmakers informed Styler and then-State Parks Director Fred Hayes that the division’s budget was to be sliced by two-thirds, from $12.8 million to $4 million.
“But don’t you close any parks,” Styler recalled being told. “We said, ‘OK, we can do this, but what we need to do is be customer-friendly. We’ve got to be like the Marriott of state parks — invite customers there and give them opportunities to make memories.’”
In response, the state’s 44 parks tried to boost visitation and revenues by investing in amenities like zip lines, campgrounds, yurt and watercraft rentals, docks and mountain bike and ATV trails.
“Fred came up with [the slogan] ’more people visiting more parks more often,’” Styler said. “People love it when you provide an opportunity for them. And we said to our state parks employees, ‘It’s now on your shoulders. You have got to step up and accept this challenge,’ and they did and they just blossomed.”
While some chafed at what they saw as overdevelopment, the parks have operated increasingly in the black and visitation has climbed most years. Styler credited Hayes, who died last year, with the fiscal turnaround that may very well have rescued the state parks system.
Now at 66, Styler intends to get back to his farm and maybe do some more hunting. In the 2017 deer hunt, he achieved a kind of sportsman’s nirvana when he took down a six-point buck on the West Tavaputs with a muzzle-loaded weapon.
A shoulder mount of the buck was attached to the office wall above Styler’s desk. He took that trophy with him and left behind a legacy he hopes will last.