The Utah Legislative Session commenced January 18, 2022 and will extend through March 4, 2022. During this time, members of the Utah State Legislature convene to revise old or consider new state laws. The volunteer chapter leaders of Utah Backcountry Hunters & Anglers actively engage in the legislative session by monitoring emerging bills on the Utah Legislature’s website relevant to BHA’s mission, meeting with representatives to discuss sponsored bills, and attending the Hunting and Fishing Caucus at the State Capitol. It is still early in the legislative session, but thus far sportsmen and women have seen some favorable legislation put forward related to public access and conservation project funding, as highlighted below:
Sponsor: Rep. Timothy Hawkes (R)
The Public Waters Access Act, passed in Utah in 2010, allows landowners to restrict public access on streams that flow through private land if the stream is determined to be “non-navigable.” Currently, the only process for determining navigability on public waters is through litigation in the State Supreme Court system, a financially burdensome process that often takes several years to result in a final decision. H.B. 129 proposes changes to this Act that would allow any member of the public to request the State to conduct an investigation to determine navigability through the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands (FFSL), while also providing a clearer definition of navigability on which to base the decision. Further, H.B. 129 requires FFSL to publish a complete list of navigable waters within Utah; this is currently an information gap that causes confusion and frustration amongst anglers. This bill sets a process for an administrative decision of navigability to be determined before resorting to the court system, allowing a formalized mechanism for assessing whether or not public access exists in a timelier manner, thus moving towards more favorable stream access law for anglers in the state.
Sponsor: Rep. Joel Ferry (R)
The Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintains the responsibility of managing public water access but lacks the authority to work with landowners to manage water levels for this purpose. H.B. 33 allows certain DNR agencies such as the Division of Wildlife Resources, the Division of State Parks and the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to purchase unutilized water rights from a landowner in order to redirect that water for an instream flow or use on sovereign lands through a free market transaction without posing any risk of losing those rights to the landowner. This win-win exchange allows landowners to benefit from leasing the water rights they do not need for irrigation while supporting conservation efforts by giving the DNR the ability to keep water in streams, resulting in favorable impacts for access and wildlife.
Sponsor: Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion (D)
The Watershed Restoration Initiative (WRI) is an existing successful partnership program that allows for federal land management agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners to partner with the state of Utah on projects to improve watershed ecosystems with a focus on watershed health and biodiversity, water quality and yield, and sustainable uses of natural resources. The WRI provides a means for prioritizing and funding watershed conservation projects throughout the state. H.B. 131 elevates the importance of the WRI by creating a division director within the Department of Natural Resources exclusively dedicated to this program. Program management changes proposed in this bill are intended to provide greater accountability for funds provided by the Legislature from the General Fund and further enhance the ability of the program to manage, improve, and restore watershed ecosystems throughout Utah.
Sponsor: Rep. Casey Snider (R)
In 2021, a state trust land parcel (over 8,000 acres) was put up for sale in Cache/Weber County. Through a concerted effort by the State of Utah, the Division of Wildlife (DWR), and various conservation organizations, the DWR was able to purchase the land after it was put forward for auction by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). This area is now known as the Cinnamon Creek Wildlife Management Area, and this acquisition has not only protected rich habitat for a variety of wildlife, but also it has opened up ample public access for hunting and fishing. Though the DWR was able to pull this off, the decision-making, collaboration, and pooling of resources all needed to happen within a very short time window and there was no legislated obligation for SITLA to work with partners from the State to find a solution beneficial for public access. H.B. 204 requires the director of SITLA to provide the Legislature with notice of the intent to sell a state trust land parcel at least 15 days before the public advertisement of the sale and allows the Legislature to provide comments on the proposed sale. Further, if the parcel for sale is over 5,000 acres, before it can publicly go on sale, the Legislature must be notified 15 days prior to the annual Legislative Session. The Legislature would then be allowed to assess the sale over the course of the Legislative Session before the competitive offer period closes or the auction commences. This would provide the State of Utah and the DWR adequate time to assess and compile an offer for a potential state trust land acquisition to increase public access and hunting/fishing opportunity.
The Utah Chapter of BHA will continue to keep its members up to date on priority bills as they emerge and change throughout the session. We encourage you to follow along and engage in the process by paying attention to the “status” section for each of the bills on the Utah Legislature’s website and contacting the relevant Committee members depending on where in the process each bill is.