Utah governor gives nod to air quality, but rural ‘investment’ drives priorities

Cox administration’s One Utah Roadmap de-emphasizes confrontation with the federal government while prioritizing access and ‘multiple use’ for public lands.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Equipment in the oil fields of the Uintah Basin southeast of Vernal, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Urban Utah may be booming, but the state’s rural areas are sliding in another direction.

The Cox administration’s One Utah Roadmap purports to offer a lifeline by prioritizing state and local control of Utah’s vast expanses of public lands, those federally owned areas spanning two-thirds of the state, and major investments in transportation, water development and broadband.

Solutions include improved “cooperation” with federal land managers, strong and coordinated land-use planning, protecting agriculture and investing in “fiscally responsible” infrastructure projects, such as the oil-moving Uinta Basin Railway and water-moving Lake Powell pipeline.

But not mentioned in the plan are major environmental challenges facing the Beehive State, such as climate change, diminishing water resources and poor air quality. While Gov. Spencer Cox has made saving the shrinking Great Salt Lake a centerpiece in his proposed budget, Utah’s signature body of water, or any other waterway for that matter, is not even discussed in his roadmap.

As the administration approaches its first anniversary, officials have laid some groundwork for achieving the plan’s goals, but many objectives are a work in progress and are likely to remain that way.

It’s worth noting the governor’s plan de-emphasizes confrontation with the federal government over public land management in favor of cooperative relationships and rural investment, according to Jake Garfield, deputy director of the governor’s Public Lands Policy and Coordinating Office, or PLPCO, commonly pronounced “plip-co.”

“There’s so much where we really have shared objectives. You want to see healthy landscapes and healthy watersheds. You want to see thriving wildlife populations,” Garfield said. “Despite the acrimony in national political discourse, there is really bipartisan agreement on what we want so we’ve really been able to improve upon our ongoing efforts to have good communication with these federal partners work toward shared goals.”

The plan, meanwhile, promotes projects that support expanded mineral extraction and policies to boost “food self sufficiency.” The administration seeks to protect grazing rights from lawsuits and implement a monitoring program designed to “substantiate” the sustainability of grazing.

Environmentalists have long contended that unbiased monitoring would document how grazing, as practiced in much of the West, is anything but sustainable. Regardless, documenting the environmental effects of livestock would take years of monitoring, and any new state-run program would not yield helpful data for some time.

But this provision in the plan suggests ranching enjoys favored status in the Cox administration. That should come as no surprise.

In choosing Spencer Cox as Utah’s 18th governor in 2020, voters threw their trust in an exemplar of the state’s rural values. Cox, 46, grew up on a Fairview farm and served on the Sanpete County Commission before serving as lieutenant governor in the Herbert administration.

“It’s so important to not only the rural economy, but the culture in the rural areas. To protect agriculture, you are protecting the people who are putting the food on your table, especially when we see transportation or production disruption that we saw through the pandemic,” said Craig Buttars, Cox’s agriculture commissioner. ”It’s important we work together with producers and the processors so that we can have a good quality product for the consumers.”

With Cox’s support, the Utah Legislature appropriated $5 million in emergency drought relief in the form of low-interest 7-year loans.

“That’s a bridge to get some of our producers through this difficult time to help them purchase feed, to help them replant some of the crops that they have to replant because of drought and purchase replacement cattle,” Buttars said.

Cox appears to be turning lip service into action aimed at shoring up the rural parts of Utah, where cattle are raised, crops harvested, minerals extracted and tourists gravitate. Titled “Build on rural Utah’s strength,” the roadmap’s public lands section celebrates access and “multiple use.”

The plan also aims to boost federal payments to rural counties under the program known as PILT, or Payments in Lieu of Taxes. Utah counties received $42.4 million in PILT funding last year, compensating for their inability to levy property taxes on federal land. But these annual payouts are woefully inadequate, Western state policymakers have long complained.

Utah has embarked on a program, which Cox supports, to appraise much of the public land within its borders in an effort to determine how much revenue these lands would raise if they privately owned.

“What we’re doing is telling Utah’s story and the story is that PILT funding is not high enough. It’s not even close to what property taxes would be,” Garfield said. “That’s becoming more of a problem as we have more visitation to federal lands and it’s local counties that are often paying for search and rescue and road maintenance and ambulances.”

Interestingly, the plan does not breathe a word about transferring title of these lands from federal to state ownership, which was a top priority for lawmakers back when Barack Obama was president. But Utah leaders largely got what they wanted on public lands management from the Trump administration, and the land-transfer campaign lost momentum after 2017.

The arrival of another pro-conservation Democrat in the White House has yet to re-animate enthusiasm for land transfer.

Instead, Cox’s roadmap talks up collaboration with the federal land managers, even in the face of a likely lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s recent decision to restore the Trump-ordered cuts to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

But even if Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes goes to court to reverse the monuments’ expansion, the Cox administration will still help craft new management plans for 2.3 million acres of public land in southern Utah.

“We’re not going to sit on the bench when the planning process goes forward,” Garfield said. “In a state where two-thirds of the state is federally owned, state government just has to be involved. That’s just the reality. What happens in court happens and we support the Attorney General’s Office fully but the executive branch is going to be engaged with the federal government.”