Commentary: Our wellbeing ties directly to our landscapes

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah State University Old Main Building.

Land-use issues are people issues. Actions we take today will forever change and impact the land, so making wise policy decisions is critical as we plan our precious land resources for future generations.

New research from Utah State University shows that Utah residents from every walk of life tie their very wellbeing to their connections with the land in their local communities and in the state more broadly. Utah State University researchers met recently in Salt Lake City with mayors, council members, legislators, resource managers, business leaders and the general public as part of a year-long series called Research Landscapes: Land, Air, Water. The land discussion was designed as an effort to show how USU researchers are working to provide policymakers with reliable, unbiased information and expertise to help them make decisions.

Likewise, the Utah League of Cities and Towns hosted its annual convention last month. More than 500 city leaders from across Utah learned how to integrate their land use, housing and transportation plans and plan for Utah’s growth. Cities work to balance the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s residents. After all, cities are in the quality-of-life business, and mayors and council members work to provide services and infrastructure while preserving what makes Utah special. We welcome the Utah State University research, outreach and partnership.

USU researchers are in local communities across the state listening to local and professional knowledge, then bringing data-driven, unbiased information to the table. USU sociologists have been tracking boom-and-bust economies and attitudes about public land as well as social issues in Utah communities. They are looking at natural resource-dependent communities and the opioid crisis and suicide rates. Land management professors are studying how fire is dramatically altering landscapes, and how that impacts communities. Economists are tracking land-use impacts on tourism-dependent communities. Landscape planning professors and rural development specialists are working with communities wrestling with protecting their “small-town feel” as they see their populations explode.

USU’s list of subject-matter expertise is a long list, and we welcome the chance to partner, to listen, to give back. These outreach efforts are part of our very mission as Utah’s land-grant university: to bring the latest scientific research expertise off of Old Main Hill and out into communities across the state.

When a change in land use is proposed, it affects people’s sense of ownership and connection to place. The conversion of an old mall sparks debate about housing and transportation. Urban development and expanding industry may be viewed as positive for some, but negative for others.

USU research shows that mountains, canyons, rivers and lakes are important to nearly everyone, yet highly valued natural areas are pressured by over-use from recreation. New research techniques and conflict management approaches can help local leaders navigate these challenges.

Many of our most contentious land-use issues are local, bringing out stakeholders and residents with different, heart-felt perspectives on what future local landscapes should look like because these issues hit at the heart of people’s wellbeing and quality of life. Our individual lenses are shaped by our culture, our experiences and our position in society.

We at ULCT and USU know that the answer to these contentious issues is to work through land conflicts and challenges by engaging all stakeholders and maximizing wellbeing for as many people as possible and for generations to come.

Solutions will never be easy, but they will be addressed in a balanced way if decision makers have reliable and up-to-date information in their hands. As Utah grows and becomes more diverse, USU has the tools to track local perspectives to ensure multiple voices are represented.

One thing we all know for certain: If we spend time brawling, we waste precious time that could be used to focus on preserving and enhancing our shared quality of life. We need to achieve and foster a level of trust amongst ourselves, our neighbors and our communities. That will come through respectful conversations, careful monitoring and insightful research, and ULCT and USU are committed to those outcomes.

Courtney Flint

Cameron Diehl

Courtney Flint is a professor of sociology at Utah State University, the state’s land-grant research university.

Cameron Diehl is executive director for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which provides legislative advocacy and training. All 248 cities and towns in Utah are members of the league.