Correcting the record: Finding the right balance with public lands

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Editor’s note: Natalie Gochnour’s column published Wednesday, Dec. 6, stated that she was denied “final approval” to attend the signing event associated with President Donald Trump’s Salt Lake City visit this week due to her ideological differences with the president. Gochnour, however, is now confident that there was no political screening. What follows is her re-written column correcting the record.

I previously wrote in this column about being politically screened from President Trump’s historic visit to the Utah State Capitol. Unfortunately, I wrote with limited information and didn’t have all the facts right. The Trump administration did not screen me for ideological reasons; it turns out there was just a ton of demand for tickets, a chaotic process, miscommunication and an impossible timeline.

I’m writing to correct the record, which I think is only fair. It’s awkward for me, but I will do my best to share a few thoughts on public land management and continue to give voice to people who feel like I do about the Trump administration.

Public land management is one of the most vexing public policy issues in Utah. I was once asked if health care policy was the most complex public policy. I responded that public land issues are far more complicated, which is saying a lot. There is just something about our relationship with the land that makes public decisions more thorny and difficult. This dilemma is made worse by how out of balance the public land equation is in Utah — two-thirds of the state is out of local control.

I worked in the state planning office for 16 years and served as state planning coordinator for one of those years. When President Clinton declared the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, I felt the pain in the governor’s office as we learned about it from the Washington Post and watched with amazement as the land grab was declared in Arizona. I helped with the slide deck presentation Gov. Mike Leavitt used in the White House to make our case for a land exchange.

These experiences taught me in a profound way the difficulty of the public land debate. It’s a war between our country and our state. I love Utah’s amazing landscapes and think they need protection. I also keenly recognize the economic insecurity faced by many in rural Utah. Right now, 11 Utah counties are in economic decline.

When President Obama declared the Bears Ears National Monument, I was on vacation in Mexico City. When my daughter read me the news feed, my heart sank. I knew it would add potent fuel to the fire that already exists between Utah and Washington, D.C.

The Trump visit was historic by any standard of Utah-federal relations. Unlike most presidential visits, which are typically made for raw-raw convention speeches or campaign purposes, this was a policy visit. With the stroke of his pen, President Trump gave many Utah elected officials, particularly in San Juan County, what they wanted — a dramatically smaller footprint for Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. Utah rightly yearns for control of the lands within our borders. There is no doubt, however, that his action adds fuel to the public land fire.

I understand the sentiment that there was little political motivation for Trump to take this action in a small state like ours. If there were, President George W. Bush could have acted on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument during his eight years in office. Many believe Trump’s action was a big win for the little guy — Utah, rural communities and San Juan County. It was certainly bold.

Since writing my original column, my email inbox and texts have been filled with people reaching out to me about the Trump visit and my original column. Some are happy that an alternative voice was shared; still others vehemently disagreed with my perspective. The one thing I do know is there is a better way. Utah’s public land debate is an outright war where opposing sides lob grenades at each other. Many view the Trump visit as just another grenade.

Those of us who want economic opportunity for rural Utah and critical land conservation are left on the outskirts, wondering how to create a better future.

Trump’s visit really isn’t about who was invited and who wasn’t. It’s about finding the right balance for Utah’s public lands. I don’t think we’ve found that yet, but we should keep trying.