Greg Sheehan knows he is going to make people mad over Utah’s public lands

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Sheehan, former head of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, has been tapped to head the federal Bureau of Land Management's Utah state office, where he oversees more than 22 million acres of public land.

Within days of assuming oversight of Utah’s vast inventory of public lands last month, Greg Sheehan was faced with a major decision that was sure to make someone mad.

To lease or not to lease. That was the question for about 87,000 acres in the heart of Utah’s outdoor recreation wonderland. In accordance with the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, the Bureau of Land Management had been planning to sell drilling rights to these lands against the wishes of Moab and Grand County’s elected leaders.

But in his first official act as the BLM’s new Utah state office director, Sheehan hit the pause button and removed these parcels from the list of parcels to be sold at the Sept. 8 auction. The one-time head of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources had misgivings about obligating lands with such strong recreation, wildlife and scenic values to the oil and gas industry.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of difficult public decision processes over the years and had to be accountable for those at the end,” Sheehan said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I want to be able to explain it — good, bad, right or wrong — to tell you why I was able to get behind the decision and support it.”

He insisted more information was needed before enabling drilling on the doorsteps of Bears Ears National Monument, Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Labyrinth Canyon.

“I didn’t feel like, honestly, I could support this,” Sheehan said. “Not that I don’t understand the area. I’ve been there many, many, many times, but I didn’t feel like I could get in front of a public meeting and say, ‘Here’s why this is a smart, prudent decision right now.’ ”

The Sept. 8 auction will go forward with oil and gas leases covering 27,000 acres elsewhere in the state.

So went Sheehan’s first week leading the BLM’s Utah office, filling the shoes of Ed Roberson, who retired last year. The agency oversees more than 22 million acres in the state and has 700 employees.

Sheehan assumes the reins at a critical time, following major changes in how the BLM operates and aggressive moves by the Trump administration to shrink national monuments, expand motorized access and increase fossil energy production on Utah’s public lands. The agency has relocated its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo., ostensibly to be closer to the West’s vast reaches of public lands and be more engaged with local elected officials.

At the same time, the BLM is tasked with crafting management plans for lands in Emery and Uintah counties recently designated by Congress for conservation and recreation.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 12, 2014, file photo shows then-Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan, center, subduing a mule deer that was trapped in a neighborhood above Bountiful.

An avid hunter and outdoor photographer, Sheehan is a graduate of Utah State University who began working for the state Department of Natural Resources nearly three decades ago. In 2008, he became director of the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), where he served until 2017, when the Trump administration lured him to Washington to help lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as deputy director.

Sheehan returned to Utah after a year because the time away from family proved a challenge for his wife and two sons, who remained in Utah. He stressed that he was not drummed out of his job, as has been the case with many political appointees in President Donald Trump’s Interior Department and other Cabinet-level agencies.

“In all candor, it wasn’t really working with our marriage. Something had to give,” Sheehan said. “There weren’t any scandals. I don’t think the employees really wanted to see me go. I don’t think that the administration wanted me to go. It was something I needed to do.”

Back in Utah, he worked for a Salt Lake City investment firm, then applied for the BLM post after Roberson’s retirement. Sheehan won the job, a nonpolitical career posting, because of his longstanding ties to Utah and history of working collaboratively with federal agencies during his 20-year tenure at DWR, according to a statement from acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley.

“We’re excited he has agreed to bring that expertise and the relationships he’s built over decades to lead the BLM’s work in Utah,” Pendley said.

Some conservation groups were less excited with the choice and raised concerns that Sheehan may be too beholden to Utah politicians to ensure national interests are protected in the management of the state’s public lands.

For years, Utah leaders have chafed at the federal oversight of more than half its land base, claiming out-of-touch, unaccountable agencies are making land-use decisions without regard to the needs of rural communities. Such rhetoric drove Utah’s failed, yet still-smoldering, push to take title to most of the federal public lands within its borders.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Greg Sheehan, when he served as director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources from 2008 to 2017. He now heads the federal Bureau of Land Management's Utah state office.

By putting a one-time Utahn official in charge of the federal office, the Interior Department is clearly responding to the state’s past complaints.

While Sheehan has never signaled support for the land-transfer movement or celebrated drilling and mining, his record at DWR gives some environmental groups pause. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance went so far to say Sheehan “is not fit” to lead the state office of the BLM.

“Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments and redrock wilderness are the crown jewels of the federal public lands in the lower 48 states entrusted to the Bureau,” said Steve Bloch, SUWA’s legal director. “In stark contrast, Sheehan’s resume is littered with the kind of parochial influence that make him particularly unsuited to manage public lands. He has a history of making decisions at the behest of state and local governments, as well as high-dollar hunting groups and energy interests, that promoted the heavy handed destruction of public lands and wildlife.”

In response to such criticism, Sheehan said his record shows a willingness to hear from all stakeholders.

“A lot of the decisions we [DWR] made had public comment that came from the full spectrum of any issue in the state, that came in from national organizations,” he said. “I think you’ve got to judge every individual on their own merits and their own beliefs and track record.”

Where SUWA saw a weakness, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert saw a strength.

“I’m thrilled to have Greg Sheehan leading the Bureau of Land Management’s work in Utah,” the governor said Tuesday through a spokesperson. “Our joint efforts to improve policies and effectively manage public lands is improved immeasurably when we have local leadership of federal agencies who understand local challenges and have a good relationship with local leaders. Greg fits that description perfectly.”

In announcing Sheehan’s appointment, the BLM emphasized his role in expanding hunting opportunities on national wildlife refuges during his short tenure with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as his “proactive” approach to recovering plant and animal species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“Under his leadership, the agency worked to accelerate species recovery and delisting efforts by strengthening and expanding partnerships with state and tribal wildlife agencies, and by expanding financial, technical and regulatory assistance for landowners to encourage voluntary conservation efforts on private lands,” the BLM announcement said. The black-capped vireo and lesser long-nosed bat were delisted on his watch, and many others species were proposed for delisting.

Sheehan embraced landscape-scale habitat restoration; identification of migration corridors; wildlife highway crossings; translocation of big game; and rebuilding the state’s fish hatcheries. On his watch, the statement noted, Utah’s mule deer population climbed by nearly a third, an increase of 100,000 animals.

There will be a lot on Sheehan’s plate in the coming years as he works to balance the competing, sometimes contradictory obligations of accommodating resource development with safeguarding the cultural artifacts, dinosaur fossils, recreational opportunities and stunning scenery found on Utah’s public lands.

“I love our public lands. I’m honored to come be a steward of those and be given a chance to show that I can be an effective leader and do good work for the people of Utah and for the citizens of our country as we work through land management issues that are out there,” he said.