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Utah Wants To Overhaul Its State Flag, But Needs To Decide On How


With just a couple of weeks left in their legislative session, Utah lawmakers have decided to take on the state flag. There's general agreement that the current flag needs an overhaul, but no consensus yet on what should replace it. Julia Ritchey reports from member station KUER in Salt Lake City.

JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: Republican Representative Stephen Handy says Utah's current flag is OK, but it doesn't really meet the standards of good flag design, according to many vexillologists. That's just a fancy word for people who study flags.

STEPHEN HANDY: These vexollogists (ph) have kind of coined a funny thing. They call it a seal on a bedsheet, sometimes referred to as an SOB (laughter).

RITCHEY: Utah's flag, like a lot of other states, is a standard navy blue. In the middle is a giant eagle, wings spread wide, hovering over a shield with a beehive. Utah is, after all, the Beehive State. It's surrounded by sego lilies, six arrows and some words and dates. In other words, it's busy. That's why Handy is proposing a bill this year to form a commission to study alternative designs and motifs that could eventually replace Utah's SOB.

VICKI VARELA: Our great state deserves a great flag.

RITCHEY: That's Vicki Varela, director of Utah's tourism office, who supports the update. She says flags of neighboring states, like New Mexico with its red Zia sun on yellow backdrop or Colorado's clean blue and white stripes, have become powerful branding tools.

VARELA: When my family comes to visit from Colorado, they now taunt me by wearing their head-to-toe Colorado flag gear.

RITCHEY: Besides the marketing potential, supporters also say the makeover could connect and inspire younger generations of Utahns. That's the goal of a competing bill in the Utah House, which would replace the flag with one designed by a local man named Jonathan Martin.

JONATHAN MARTIN: I am an artist, a designer, a marketer, a agent provocateur, if you could say.

RITCHEY: Martin presented his proposal to a legislative committee this month. It features crisscrossing panels of blue, red and white, symbolizing the Great Salt Lake, southern Utah's red rock canyons and northern Utah's snowcapped mountains. In the middle is a giant beehive, a symbol of the state's predominant religion, Mormonism.

MARTIN: And it tells the history of Utah in such a way that most flags don't tell their state's history.

RITCHEY: But not every lawmaker was thrilled with the concept. Representative Travis Seegmiller said he thought Martin's design was more modern, but also...


TRAVIS SEEGMILLER: Sterile and uninspiring and corporate.

RITCHEY: An even bigger sticking point for some was Martin's inclusion of the year 1847. That's the date when Mormon pioneers fleeing persecution entered the Salt Lake Valley. Critics point out that the date excludes Native Americans who had settled the region much earlier. Lauren Simpson is with the progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah.

LAUREN SIMPSON: We do believe that something as encompassing as a new state flag should be as inclusive as possible and tell the story of all Utahns and not just one group.

RITCHEY: Lawmakers are not exactly known for quick deliberation or artistic capacity, but they do love to create task forces. Representative Stephen Handy's commission to make recommendations is likely the next step. Coming up with a flag design that pleases everyone could be tricky, but most agree Utah can do better than a seal on a bedsheet. For NPR News, I'm Julia Ritchey in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.