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Paul Rolly: Beware, guv, when trying to rein in wild horses

Published May 5, 2014 7:06 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Gov. Gary Herbert should be careful when stepping into the controversy between the Bureau of Land Management and southern Utah ranchers over wild horses vs. cattle grazing on federal lands.

Horses hold a special place in Western hearts, so the governor's recent suggestion that the state manage them to keep more ranges open for cattle grazing spurred an outcry.

An advocacy group claimed more than 7,000 faxes flooded Herbert's office, objecting to his stance.

An Iron County commissioner had earlier threatened that if the BLM didn't remove hundreds of wild horses in southern Utah, residents would do it themselves. And Herbert seemed to back the commissioner.

But, if you mess too much with horses, you could be playing with political fire.

My personal observation of the magical attraction humans have with horses came in February 1993, barely a month into the first term of then-Gov. Mike Leavitt.

The newly elected governor was full of energy and ideas. He had a vision. But an unwitting showdown with "E.T." shook his administration.

The crisis began when basketball legend Michael Jordan publicly complained about the NBA staging its All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, where it is cold in February.

Jordan said the game should be held in a warm-climate city where players could enjoy the All-Star weekend with golf and other outdoor endeavors.

That gave Vicki Varela, Leavitt's public relations guru, a bright idea. The governor would fly Jordan to St. George on the state plane before the game so Jordan could enjoy the fabulous golf courses in southwestern Utah. The national media would surely follow Jordan on the adventure and the result would be pictures on network television of Utah's spectacular scenery, a potential boost for tourism.

I was writing this column at the time with JoAnn Jacobsen-Wells — it was called Rolly & Wells. Varela called JoAnn to tell her of the invitation they would offer to Jordan and suggest that we might want to mention it in our column. That would get Leavitt and his visionary brainstorming great publicity.

We wrote about it. But the public reaction was not what Leavitt and Varela expected.

Folks were outraged that the new governor would use taxpayer funds to fly one of the nation's richest people to southern Utah for a free golf trip. The volume of telephone complaints to the governor's office was historic.

To make matters worse, the offer came at the same time a horse, which hikers had named E.T., was seen stranded on a mountain cliff in Utah County, knee-high in snow and unable to move. The horse was there for several days and those who had seen him were urging the government to save him.

When no rescue attempt came right away, people began complaining that the state can spend money to fly a rich guy to southern Utah, but can't use a helicopter to save a horse.

In the end, an Army helicopter was deployed and the horse was saved. And Jordan did not go to St. George.

It demonstrated the political power of horses.

prolly@sltrib.com