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Part 5: Research and Management

Science and Research

Scientists and natural resource managers sometimes avoid issues that have been politicized. This can come from their training and culture, which sometimes make researchers more comfortable with quantitative analysis rather than political implications. There can also be administrative barriers. For example, many of the most informed managers working on Utah Lake were a part of the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR), a state executive branch agency that under the governor’s office. Because the governor’s office had been such a strong proponent of the island project, some DNR employees worried their status in the organization could be threatened if they brought up concerns.

In this case, an additional barrier to scientific involvement was how outlandish the project seemed to many experts. Many researchers initially thought that the project would collapse under its own weight, given its outsized scope and nontraditional approach. This slowed the involvement of the scientific community, which didn’t become actively engaged until the summer of 2021, four years after the submission of LRS’ land transfer proposal. However, when the science and management community finally did engage, they became an important source of information and context.

Starting with the Utah Lake Symposium, the scientific community produced several evidence-based critiques of LRS’ plan. First, they sent a letter of concern to Utah’s legislature and governor’s office signed by 117 experts in December of 2021. Second, they engaged in the federal permitting process. When LRS submitted their application to the US Army Corps of Engineers, six groups of researchers and managers submitted public comments with concerns about the project. Finally, individual researchers and managers, including many who disagreed about specific Utah Lake issues, worked with legislators, the Environmental Protection Agency, and city leaders to raise awareness of the risks of the project.

Some of the names of the 117 scientists who signed a letter of concern

While it is difficult to know whether a specific group or perspective influenced a decisionmaker, the clarity and unity of the scientific community seems to have changed the dialogue. They brought technical understanding to these complex issues, which they and others were able to use in their advocacy.

Reflection Questions

  1. What are the pros and cons of researchers and managers speaking out publicly on issues that are politically controversial?
  2. What role did the scientific community play in influencing the policy process in this case?
  3. How can we improve communication between policymakers, managers, and researchers on environmental and public health issues?

State Managers and Agencies

Since LRS had filed its land exchange application in 2017, the DNR’s division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL) had been coordinating the project. They had facilitated dozens of meetings and requested information from LRS so they could evaluate the project. After HB 240 was passed in 2022, FFSL had a new responsibility: evaluate if the transfer of lakebed was constitutional.

FFSL asked LRS for its legal analysis of the land transfer, which they considered before making their decision. FFSL’s director, Jamie Barnes, announced their decision on August 17th, 2022 during an interim committee meeting.

Jamie Barnes decision video

Jamie Barnes, Director of Utah's FFSL

After many months of reviewing the islands project proposed by Lake Restoration Solutions, the Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands announced that they would be cancelling the application because it was unconstitutional and not backed by sufficient scientific evidence. LRS had three weeks to appeal this decision before it became official. Was it possible that this fight for Utah Lake was over?

When the announcement of the project being cancelled first reached Jon, he met with his team to discuss how they would respond to the announcement. They didn’t have much time, but Jon was confident that they could find a way forward. As they discussed the predicament, the idea came up to focus on the specific language of HB 240. It stated that the Legislature and Governor had the authority to review the constitutionality of a project but never explicitly stated that FFSL did.

On November 16, the day before the response deadline, LRS appealed FFSL’s decision. DNR director, Joel Ferry, thought to himself “so they finally decided to do something” before he started sharing the appeal with his team so they could get to work on addressing the issues which were brought up.

In the appeal, LRS claimed that Jamie Barnes, the director of FFSL had overstepped her authority when stating that the project was unconstitutional. According to LRS, FFSL had completely refused to acknowledge the benefits that dredging and building islands would bring to Utah Lake. Unfortunately for LRS, the US Army Corps of Engineers had just come to a similar determination that their proposal didn’t have the required evidence to move forward with their evaluation.

The appeal asked that Joel and the DNR require FFSL to rescind their decision and review the application again. After a couple weeks of deliberation, Director Ferry determined that Jamie and FFSL had made the correct decision and denied the appeal.

At the federal level, the United States Army Corps of Engineers had been reviewing the island proposal since the beginning of 2022 to determine if it was complete enough to approve and allow LRS to create their Environmental Impact Statement. After receiving many comments from professionals and citizens, they determined that the proposal did not have adequate evidence to prove that dredging would be effective or even evaluate what LRS was proposing. The proposal was incomplete and would need to be seriously revised before it could be considered again. This was a heavy blow to LRS since the Army Corps approves over 98% of project applications.

Reflection Questions

  1. Who are all the major stakeholder groups that played a role in determining the fate of the LRS proposal for Utah Lake? Were there any groups that weren’t represented that should have been?
  2. What were the primary interests, positions, and power held by each stakeholder group in relation to the LRS proposal?