Phil Lyman is no stranger in San Juan County. He is a fifth-generation native of San Juan County and has served as the County Commissioner of District 2 for the past eight years.
His time in county office has been marked with controversy and heated public land protests, along with a commissioner of the year award he was honored with, but declined due to the backlash it caused with Salt Lake County.
Lyman certainly has not shied away from controversy and at times has embraced it. He contends that without controversy, San Juan County would never have generated the support for Secretary Zinke’s review and subsequent reduction in size of the Bears Ears National Monument.
He looks now to carry that same energy to the Utah House of Representatives, as he runs for the right to represent District 73, which is comprised of Kane, Garfield, Wayne, San Juan, Piute counties, most of Beaver County, and a small portion of Sevier County.
It’s a vast district that covers many different towns and ideologies, but they all carry the common thread of having rural communities within vast amounts of public land and federal land.
Lyman sat down with the San Juan Record on Oct. 16 to talk about his experience on the campaign trail and some of the things he has taken away from the experience and opportunity to meet with different people along the way in the seven different counties.
“This district is an amazing district,” Lyman said. “You talk about landscape; it is chopped up. It’s rugged. Some counties are 97 percent public land. San Juan County is 92 percent public land.”
Lyman said many of the counties have seen their coal industry shut down as well as their lumber industry and other extractive industries. In addition to these economic losses, Lyman said that ranching is under attack from the same forces. He pointed to the growing tourism industry but stopped short of calling it the main economic force that District 73 should be based on.
“You’ve got a lot of people that still remember what it was like to live out here and not just change beds for visitors,” Lyman said. “They do not want these changes, while. others are coming in saying, ‘get with the program, global warming is a thing, cows are a problem, Mother earth is kind.’
“So you’ve got these communities where you have genuine polar opposite viewpoints and, while they usually get along with each other, they have conflicting goals and you can really feel it.”
One of the main things Lyman has found along his campaign trail is that people are genuinely concerned. He said they are concerned about the cost of health care, finances in general, water, infrastructure, shrinking enrolment in their schools. Lyman also touched upon the concern that people have about how the state is managing things like the Division of Wildlife Resources.
“They feel like the state is not doing a good job,” Lyman said. “There is this big push in Utah to give more jurisdictional control over public lands to the state and it makes me anxious when it is clear that the state has some bad actors and, like the federal agencies, lacks the trust of the people.
“To me the right argument to make is that the state should be in control of the land within their state boundaries, but when even the state agencies are not performing and they are doing things that are counterproductive to the ranching community or the farmers and to the landscape in general, it leaves citizens skeptical of State management as well.
“I want to see the state do a better job and earn the confidence of the people, so that when we say, ‘who can do a better job at managing it,’ it shouldn’t ever be a question as to who that is.It should be first and foremost the people themselves, the local communities, and then the state who is their voice in protecting their interest from external threats, including overreach of the federal agencies”
When asked how some of these rural counties and municipalities can go about diversifying their economy, Lyman said he would like to see more manufacturing and industry jobs, calling them real family-sustaining jobs.
He talked about the appeal of working in the health care, education, financial, and other service sectors of the economy and the opportunities that are right in front of us with the right mindset and access to high-speed internet.
The Rural Online Initiative passed last legislative session demonstrates the legislature’s intent on helping our rural towns participate in Utah’s robust economy.
“Tourism is fantastic, don’t get me wrong,” Lyman said. “If you were talking about a three-legged stool of our economy, tourism would be one of those legs and it’s really important.”
He said that what makes tourism such an interesting industry is that it has a built-in promotional mechanism in the form of Transient Room Taxes (TRT) which are collected by mandate and which must be spent mostly on promotion. Other industries don’t have that same type of structured funding. “This is a powerful engine that keeps tourism growing.
“I have never been an advocate for TRT or restaurant taxes, in fact I have objected to them as a citizen and as a commissioner, but they are there, and you can’t ignore the business side of how they affect development.
“If you wanted to develop a project for manufacturing or mineral exploration, your only incentive is the free market, as it should be. There is no public mechanism like TRT funds for that kind of development.
“I expect that the state’s emphasis on destination development and marketing will continue to drive traffic to southern Utah. We have the best product in the state, the only question is whether or not we will try to maintain some local control of the growth that is surely headed to our communities.”
In addition to TRT money, the counties within District 73 receive Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and federal mineral lease money. I asked commissioner Lyman to talk about how PILT affects the counties in the district and what we should expect future funding to be.
“The whole premise of PILT is payment in lieu of taxes that would have been collected locally on land that could be productive but isn’t because the federal government has decided that they are not going to allow it to be productive,” Lyman said. “In my mind, PILT is more of a decoy to keep us from pursuing truly productive and responsible use of our public lands.
“It bothers me when commissioners argue in favor of PILT instead of in favor or prosperity and jobs for their constituents, but unfortunately that is another one of those realities that we are forced to deal with in our counties.
“The idea that Congress has the discretion of funding PILT fully or partially underscores the danger of counties becoming dependent on that source of funding. Our county commissioners and our state legislators should be lobbying for production and that’s what I want to see, especially in district 73. In the meantime, Congress made the deal and they dang well better honor it.
“I believe in limited government and in the consent of the governed. In America, we place a high premium on consent. The biggest threat we face in District 73 is from the federal government which claims ownership of almost all the land.
“Not only do we have a federal government that claims supreme authority over nearly every aspect of our lives, their agencies have become a whip in the hands of those who dislike us and wish we weren’t here.
“We elect representatives to protect us from exactly this type of threat, not to negotiate the terms of our surrender.”