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Green groups breathe easier as Utah backs away from merging environment and natural resources agencies

Proposal still could give priority to boosting motorized recreation.

(Tribune file photo) A tourist enjoys the view from Dead Horse Point State Park, one of 44 operated by the Utah Department of Natural Resources. A bill before the Legislature to restructure the department would break its Division of Parks and Recreation into two divisions and could prioritize motorized recreation in grant making.

The Cox administration’s proposed reorganization of Utah state agencies that oversee the environment and natural resources has been scaled way back.

Instead of merging the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), a bill introduced last week would set up a “coordination council” to explore ways the agencies can work more effectively together.

Sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, HB346 would reshuffle some divisions within DNR and could prioritize motorized recreation in an existing grant program currently administered by the Office of Outdoor Recreation.

“Governor Cox has been committed to finding ways to improve state government coordination,” Brian Steed, DNR’s executive director, said through a department spokesman. “Sometimes this can be done through mergers or consolidations, and at other times it’s achieved by creating better synergy and support between agencies.”

Snider’s original goal was to combine DNR and DEQ to eliminate bureaucratic redundancies that arise when activities, such as oil and gas development, are regulated by both departments.

In its final form, the 256-page bill, to be aired soon in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, would separate DNR’s Division of Parks and Recreation into two divisions and bring the Office of Energy Development within DNR. That would expand the department’s budget by $217,000, according to a fiscal note.

Environmental groups are relieved the departmental merger came off the table. They feared such a move would make DEQ’s watchdog role subservient to DNR’s mission to promote the development of Utah’s mineral, water and timber resources.

“It was a terrible idea,” said Steve Erickson, an environmental lobbyist. “We are calling it a victory for sane policy. It would have been a precipitous and ill-advised move to combine two agencies with such different purposes.”

A similar proposal a decade ago went nowhere after then-Gov. Gary Herbert declined to support it.

Snider’s bill does propose a council composed of the executive directors of DNR and DEQ and the state’s agriculture commissioner. They would meet at least monthly to discuss “methods to enhance the coordination of regulation and services of the three departments.”

“Our agencies overlap and work well together, but we can always do better,” Steed said. “By working more collaboratively, we can not only improve internal cooperation but also improve relationships and outcomes with local governments, federal partners, tribal nations and other stakeholders.”

The Office of Outdoor Recreation (OOR) would remain with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, but its grant-making responsibilities would be reassigned to the newly broken-out Division of Recreation and a 14-member advisory panel.

“Utah’s growth and accompanying strain on outdoor recreation highlight a need for better planning, vision and implementation of resources and opportunities statewide,” Steed said. “The [proposed] Division of Recreation will meet this need as it will manage the long-range planning and expansion of all outdoor recreation statewide and will work collaboratively with local governments, federal partners and the newly formed Outdoor Adventure [Advisory] Commission.”

That grant program has been the OOR’s core mission after its inception in 2013, funding “recreation infrastructure” projects aimed at expanding the kinds of outdoor opportunities Utah is famous for, such as mountain biking, skiing, trails, off-roading, wildlife viewing, camping, fishing, climbing and paddling. It has issued $16.3 million in grants to 414 projects since 2015, according to the office’s 2020 report.

Last year’s projects included revitalization of the Price River corridor and stream-side trail through Helper; rerouting trails on Lone Peak; park amenities at Jackson Flat Reservoir’s beach; improvements to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail; and ATV staging areas at Circleville and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

Draft language would have required that “at least” half the grant money and agency resources would go toward snowmobiling and off-road vehicle use, but this proposal did not make it into the bill Snider filed. Motorized recreation has enjoyed substantial state support through programs administered by state parks for the past 50 years. Today, Utah has 80,000 miles of designated ATV trails and 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails, according to a pending Senate resolution honoring Utah’s commitment to motorized access.

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