CNCounty News

WIR showcases Utah counties

Image of page 1 WIR board.jpg

Key Takeaways

A hand is stronger than a single finger, and that’s the message Utah and its counties sent as hosts of the Western Interstate Region (WIR) Conference May 17-19 in Washington County (St. George), Utah.

As the only state that requires resource management plans, Utah has set its 29 counties in a stronger position when interacting with federal land-owning agencies, which manage two-thirds of Utah.

Redge Johnson, who led the effort to get every county of the Beehive State planning ahead, shared that vision during the WIR Board of Directors meeting. He is now executive director of the state’s Public Lands Policy and Coordinating Office.

“If every county in the West were doing this, it would give a lot more impact to what we’re going to get into with FLPMA (the Federal Land Policy and Management Act) and NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act),” he said.

Not only is it a good internal process for counties, but it can also be effective in dealing with the federal government.

“The federal planning process is supposed to be as consistent as possible with our local plans,” he said. “It’s the strongest language we have in federal legislation. Anytime you’re working with BLM (Bureau of Land Management), you can really hold their feet to the fire and make them consistent with your plans.”

In doing so, Johnson recommended resource plans be founded in incontrovertible science and coordinated through a single state agency. He recommended developing goals, policies and objectives for 29 different resources, including wilderness, water, agriculture, plants, unique wildlife, wild horses and more.

“Anything that touches on federal ownership or federal land management, we wanted to make sure that our resource management plans had something to say about the management,” he said.

“We make sure that the state is speaking with one voice,” he noted. “Our office is able to speak for every agency in the state. We speak for most of the counties and we speak for the governor’s office and the state government. That’s been really effective because the Department of Environmental Quality might say something on a water issue and the Department of Agriculture might say something different. We’re not giving the federal agencies an opportunity to take one agency’s point over another agency’s.”

Troy Timmons, policy director for the Western Governors Association, seconded that.

“Where you can be involved in those federal processes, you need to be,” he said. “Collective officials count more than the general public when you’re engaging with these federal officials on things that they’re going to affect your ability to manage that land.”

Timmons was wary of the BLM’s proposed rule prioritizing the health and resilience of ecosystems and how that would affect established uses of BLM land. 

“If we can’t do multiple-use management, then that shreds your economy,” Timmons said. “If it doesn’t take care of wildfire, it does not produce a good habitat for all those critters.”

“I think for a lot of people, there’s a lot of people that hear ‘multiple use’ that think that is ‘multiple abuse’ and that is not the case at all,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re differentiating between the two in the minds of policymakers and people that are executing that policy.”

Timmons also encouraged counties to be proactive when thinking about housing affordability as more state governments turn their attention to the issue.

“I know that’s a really hard one to come together, but if you guys don’t do it, somebody’s going to do it to you,” he said. “I’d rather have you guys in the driver’s seat on that than anyone else.”


WIR takes care of business

Carbon County, Wyo. Commissioner John Espy was elected WIR president and Stevens County, Wash. Commissioner Wes McCart was elected first vice president. John Peters, a Mono County, Calif. supervisor, won the second vice president position over Fremont County, Colo. Commissioner Dwayne McFall. Malheur County, Ore. Judge Dan Joyce became immediate past president.

Varlin Higbee, a Lincoln County, Nev. commissioner, had planned to move away from county service, after three decades on the county’s planning commission, once he retired from the state department of transportation to focus on his ranching. Then family called, and his cousin suggested Higbee run for Lincoln County commissioner, and after nearly two terms, he was named Dale Sowards Outstanding Public Lands Official Award winner. He’s currently serving as president of the Nevada Association of Counties.

His uncle, Alan Gardner, a former Washington County commissioner previously served as WIR president and also received the Dale Sowards Award.

Mobile workshops included a vigorous hike of Snow Canyon led by Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist, a hike through Zion National Park and a trip to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a 3,700-acre sanctuary for more than 1,500 animals that leased an additional 33,000 acres from BLM.

The Environment, Energy and Land Use Steering Committee toured diversion dams and reservoirs managed by the Washington County Conservancy District and the Public Lands Steering Committee toured Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Educational workshops covered advances in forecasting and its application for drought management, wildfire mitigation, energy management, environmental resilience near military installations and county workforce development.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) and Lt. Gov. Deirdre Henderson (R) delivered video greetings to conference attendees.

Next year’s WIR Conference will be held May 8-10 in Mariposa County, Calif.


Fire warden lends insight

Ryan Riddle illustrated how relationships have fueled his success as Iron County, Utah’s fire warden. The start of summer represents a long stretch of stress for personnel like Riddle across the West. He’s responsible for wildland fire suppression in unincorporated, private and state lands, and is on-call 24 hours a day from June 1 to Oct. 31.

“I learned how important it is to be firm, fair and friendly — I apply it to everything that I do,” he said. “It’s very important to me to ensure that, especially on the fire line when I’m giving direction, that I’m firm, that I’m providing the firefighters on the ground what they need to be successful.”

In addition, his relationship with his family is both what keeps him moored but is the most at risk during fire season. Riddle’s wife is a state trooper, and she understands, and has her own commitments.

“It’s very easy for her to understand when I get called away to a fire,” he said.

“I can’t say that for my kids. They don’t understand, especially at a young age, when the phone call comes in on their birthday that Dad’s got to go to work.”

Although Riddle said 98% of fires in Utah are extinguished before they grow to more than 10 acres, the devastation from that 2% lasts for a long time.

“I can’t express how devastating it is to any firefighter when you’ve been hired to do a job to protect communities and protect property and you’re not able to do that,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to see somebody’s house go up in flames or to hear of the loss of life. It’s even worse when it’s an entire community.

“I’m proud to say, but not happy to say, that I’ve spent weeks in therapy. I’m dealing with PTSD, unfortunately.”

He challenged county officials to be proactive in building relationships with their firefighting personnel.

“I’m very fortunate, because of my background and because of my ability to build relationships,” he noted.

“I have an excellent relationship with my elected officials and continue to communicate with them on a regular basis and I’m very proud of that relationship.”

“I would recommend to you to do the same, because this is not your problem, this is not the federal government’s problem, this is not the private landowners problem,” he said.

“This is all of our problems, and together we can work toward a common goal to come up with a strategy to protect ourselves and the people that we serve from the effects of wildland fire.”

University of Wyoming researcher Travis Brammer encouraged counties to contribute their efforts to serve wildlife migration, acknowledging that they are often overlooked in the intergovernmental network.

Successfully planning around seasonal wildlife migration can reduce wildlife collisions up to 90%, Brammer said, noting that there are usually 2 million such collisions annually.

“With all these federal efforts underway, there is a lot of research already being done on those federal efforts and nobody has really taken a hard look at the state and local efforts,” noting that counties are usually responsible for half of the cost of cleanups from collisions.

Those costs to counties typically total $5,000 per deer, $12,000 per elk and $20,000 per moose. 

He said most policies designed to help connect wildlife habitats are done via executive order, which is not as durable as locally passed policies. Counties can address connectivity through their zoning plans, enacting speed lines and incorporating fencing in transportation planning.

“When a county has something on the books, it makes it much easier to request funding from the feds or the states and then if they have something on the books they can use that in that coordination process,” he said.

Chief Patrol Agent Patricia McGurk-Daniel described the challenges facing the country’s 20,000 border patrol agents, particularly those in the Yuma sector in Arizona, which is responsible for 167 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

She noted that the agency’s work goes beyond strictly border protection.

“We’re often the first ones that respond to wildfires, we’re the first ones there for drunken disorderlies, we’re the first ones there for domestic [disturbances], we’re the first ones there to protect our tribal lands,” she said. 


Federal assistance

Joan Mooney, principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Department of Interior, updated attendees via video recording on programming germane to Western counties, particularly relating to water resources.

She mentioned the $8.3 billion included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for water infrastructure programs through the Bureau of Reclamation, including for reuse and rural water projects, dam safety and watershed health initiatives. One such program is $140 million for water conservation and efficiency projects through reclamations waterSMART program supporting 84 projects across 15 Western states.

When completed, she said, the projects would conserve 77 billion gallons of water, enough water for more than 940,000 people. That follows $585 million in reclamation funding for 83 projects in 11 states.

All was possible thanks to intergovernmental cooperation, she said.

“When we partner with local communities who have done the heavy lifting who know what their backyards really need,” she said, “we make progress that benefits crucial species and the folks who depend on these regions to survive.”


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