In some of the more remote southern counties in Utah, it can be easy for farmers and ranchers to feel like they are on their own. There are miles of open range, towering mountainsides and blue sky as far as the eye can see. Most locals like things that way, when compared with the congestion of urban life. But when it comes to the struggle that can be present when working with public land agencies or activist groups, it’s nice to have an advocate in your corner.
Fortunately, those qualities of rural Utah are what brought a young attorney back from the big city to work on behalf of the state to ensure its public land management priorities are advocated for. It helped that these priorities were in line with Utah Farm Bureau policies, which makes the office another resources for ranchers to consult with in working with public land management agencies.
These multiple-use management policies were also in line with the family background of attorney Shea Owens, who took the position of Legal Counsel for the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office or PLPCO. The position was created through the legislature and championed by Representative Mike Noel – himself a Farm Bureau member – to give the PLPCO office greater access to public lands counties. Owens has family in the cattle industry in Garfield County, and is the nephew of Garfield County Farm Bureau member Wally Dodds.
“One of the biggest surprises for me in moving down to Garfield County was that when I lived in Salt Lake City, I thought I understood rural issues because my family was from here,” Owens said. “But I’m almost embarrassed at how little I fully understood these issues until I moved down here. I’ve learned a lot listening to people talk about things that you just don’t hear of in the media and in urban areas. Many people [down here] just don’t have a big enough voice for people [in urban areas] to hear them.”
While the litigation side of PLPCO has attorneys staffed by the Attorney General’s office, Owens works on the policy side of the office, along side other attorneys that have special designations to be able to work on policies related to litigation. The purpose of being housed in Garfield County, Owens said, is to make it easier to travel to meetings and interact with public land agency managers.
“We have a three-fold mission, 1. Litigation Support; 2. Helping influence policy (rangeland policies with the Forest Service, vegetation treatments with the Bureau of Lange Management (BLM), etc.); and 3. Helping influence good decisions when it comes to projects that public land agencies are working on,” Owens said. “We also help ranchers when they are having troubles working with these groups. We can’t work on every case or call that may come into our office, but [try to] if it aligns with the priorities of the PLPCO office.”
Owens has spent much of his time working with ranchers on projects that impact their allotments. Owens cited a decision issued by the Dixie Forest back in 2009, and how the Powell Ranger District within that forest was looking to revise its travel management plan that could impact R.S. 2477 roads. Owens’ role with this involved reading through EIS reports and working with the District Ranger to create the best avenues for counties to get access to the roads they needed. An additional attorney, Mark Boshell, also works in the Panguitch office and focuses primarily on R.S. 2477 roads and taking depositions.
Owens said he’s also been working to heal the relationship between the ranchers and the public land managers, to look for ways to work together positively in the future.
“We’re hoping [this] turns into measurable, productive results – like increased AUMs and land management agencies granting extensions of grazing permits more easily – and to see projects benefitting livestock as well as wildlife, not just wildlife exclusively,” Owens said. “I think healing the relationship between these to has been an immediate result.”
The feedback Owens has been receiving so far has been positive.
“Sometimes I’ll show up to meetings and most people are surprised that there is a kid in the back asking questions,” Owens said. “Many come up and ask me what I’m doing, and they’re encouraged that we’re challenging certain situations.”
In addition to concerns for ranchers, Owens has seen work in their office benefiting timber farmers as well. Whether it involves issues with grazing or timber harvesting, the best thing farmers and ranchers can do to assist Owens and others in the PLPCO office is to keep them informed.
“Keep us informed when there are issues – like a range con giving someone a hard time, and exercise a little foresight if you think the management of your allotment is headed in the wrong direction,” Owens said. “If we can find out before a letter of non-compliance is issued, we can try to help out. The sooner we can find out about issues, it makes it easier. It is hard if we find out five years after the suspension was issued.”
Owens said the same applies to the timber industry, if farmers think their sale isn’t structured right or things aren’t as they have been. He encourages them to call before the next sale is up.
While some may be hesitant to visit with the office, or frustrated because they feel the state isn’t doing enough, Owens encouraged Farm Bureau members to contact them.
“The PLPCO office – and Governor Herbert specifically – care a lot about the rural counties in Utah and want to help if possible,” Owens said.
Owens and the other attorneys can be reached at 435-676-1138. For more information in working with the PLPCO office or, Farm Bureau members can also contact the State Farm Bureau office (801-233-3040) and work with one of its regional managers.