Brooke Williams, Author at Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

  • September 3rd, 2010

    From the dictionary:

    may·hem [mey-hem] –noun A state of rowdy disorder

    Last week SUWA Attorney Liz Thomas announced plans for our ORV Mayhem contest. The purpose is to make our supporters aware of the type of Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) use taking place, legally, on Utah’s public lands by submitting the best (actually worst) ORV Mayhem videos they can find online or in their own video stash showing the crazy antics and associated resource damage that the Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is allowing ORVs to inflict on our public lands.  Since then, I’ve had the chance to think about the idea of “rowdy disorder” in a larger context.

    Yes, mayhem is one word to describe the experience of watching a group of ATV’s churning in a long, noisy, dust-encrusted line through the middle of what might otherwise be a nearly infinite wild area.  The continual revving and squealing of highly-modified jeeps being forced up sandstone walls far steeper than their designers intended is mayhem, as is the full-panicked scattering of frightened wildlife—fish/deer/birds—in advance of hissing, steaming vehicles as they crash through a once pristine desert creek environment.

    “Rowdy disorder” is also an accurate term to describe the political influence of the ORV community.  Why, for example, when only 7% of visitors to BLM lands in the Moab area responding to a survey said that their main activity was ORV use, are 81% of the lands overseen by the Moab BLM Office open to them?

    Or right now in San Juan County, over 80% of the public lands are within 1 mile of an ORV route and less than 10% of these far-flung lands are farther than 2 miles from a motor vehicle route.

    Our question is:  why is this not enough?  Why has San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams stated that his county favors opening even more areas to ORVs by creating a system of access roads?  Why does Utah BLM allow ORV use on about 90% of our public lands, to the detriment of other users and the natural resources?

    The answer: the generally inexplicable influence a few noisy ORV enthusiasts have on local county officials, who in turn influence Utah BLM officials, who in turn influence the agency’s ORV decisions on up the ladder.  It’s not rational, we know.

    The ORV community would have the world believe that the “left-wing environmental mafia” (SUWA) would like to build a fence around a 9.4 million acre blob of wilderness in the middle of southern Utah, excluding anyone but the most fit and serious backpackers.  This is simply not true.  America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act consists of dozens of different wilderness areas bounded by literally thousands of miles of legitimate routes currently being used by ORV enthusiasts, but also mountain bikers, hikers accessing the backcountry, or families in minivans.  Passage of the Red Rock bill would mean closing a very small percentage of ORV trails (about 15% in southern and eastern Utah).  Many of these are trails that don’t actually go anywhere, or there is no compelling reason for their existence; many duplicate another route.  (In San Juan County, for example, if all the wilderness in the Red Rock bill were designated, it would close 900 out of 5,000 miles of trails (less than 18%) — many of which traverse culturally-sensitive areas and streambeds, or are little used and all but impossible to find on the ground.)

    ”ORV Mayhem” – the sometimes extreme rhetoric and politics of the ORV community – perpetuates unnecessary damage to our last remaining wild lands.  The time to end the mayhem is now.

  • August 9th, 2010

    Recapture Creek is in a spectacular canyon with an astounding prehistory, as evidenced by the number and quality of its cultural resources.  In 2006, unknown individuals illegally constructed an off-road vehicle (ORV) route through Recapture. The illegal route was built directly through archaeological sites and crosses the creek several times.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) eventually issued a temporary closure for the illegal route in 2007, and has started a criminal investigation that is still ongoing.

    Subsequent to BLM’s closure, San Juan County requested a right-of-way (ROW) for the illegal ORV route. Even though the BLM is still conducting its criminal investigation, the agency began processing the County’s ROW application. Due to the area’s archeological significance, and in order to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, BLM has begun a consultation process with interested parties. SUWA is an interested party because we petitioned the BLM to close the route, and we are participating in the consultation process, along with the State Historic Preservation Office, professional
    archaeologists, other environmental and cultural resource protection organizations, the Ute Tribe, a local ORV advocacy group, the cities of Blanding and Monticello, and San Juan County. In addition, the Hopi Tribe has submitted letters to the BLM requesting the permanent closure of the unauthorized route in Recapture Canyon to motorized vehicles due to the cultural resources issues.

    There is sound basis for closing the route to motorized vehicle use to protect the cultural resources, as current research indicates that there is a direct correlation between the vandalizing and looting of cultural resources and access by ORVs. Sites visible from ORV routes are much more likely to be vandalized.

    Besides the NHPA process which the field trip in this video was part of, BLM has indicated that it will conduct an environmental review and publish an Environmental Assessment for public review and comment before determining whether the agency will grant a ROW for the illegal route to San Juan County.

    Video by Brooke Williams, SUWA Field Advocate

  • August 3rd, 2010

    August 3, 2010

    It now appears that Senator Bennett and the San Juan County Commissioners are developing legislation they plan on introducing before the year’s end without input from the Utah Wilderness Coalition (UWC). It is a serious lapse of judgment to assume that a legitimate public lands bill is possible without the help of the UWC—that part of the Utah conservation community with the most experience in, knowledge of, and passion for the wilderness in San Juan County.

    From our perspective, the worst case scenario is that members of the Senate will attach a San Juan County
    public lands bill to other legislation in order to pass it as a “going away present” to Sen. Bennett, with whom some of them have served for nearly two decades. We agree that the good Senator deserves a present for his diligent
    service, but have his friends considered a nice gold watch or a weekend at a timeshare on Maui? Neither of those will incite the battle that will surely begin once legislation involving wilderness in San Juan County is introduced.

    We take comfort in having stated publicly over and over again that if we are not involved in creating a bill, the issue will not be resolved. We will:

    • With Redrock activists, oppose any bad legislation and/or work with our Redrock Champions to add wilderness as to make it a significant step forward in land protection.
    • Continue to defend and work to protect any areas not designated wilderness.
    • Make the strongest possible case for National Monument designation.
    • File litigation against the Bush management plan controlling ORV and energy use for the area.
    • Keep pushing for the passage of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.

    We are closely watching the situation in San Juan County—the home of Cedar Mesa, Glen Canyon, and the Greater Canyonlands wilderness areas—and will update you when we get further information, including schedules for public meetings, which are likely to occur. 

    Stay tuned, and thank you for your continued interest.

  • July 29th, 2010

    Earlier this month we were sad to receive the word that Emery County Commissioners will not be negotiating a wilderness bill with the Utah Wilderness Coalition.

    Throughout the past two years SUWA and UWC staff have traveled thousands of miles and attended countless hours of meetings during what we were told was the “information gathering” stage of the Emery County public lands process. This made sense because this phase of their “process” had no resemblance to any accepted definition of the word–no formally stated guiding principles or sideboards, and no neutral third party facilitator (efforts by the county and SUWA to hire a neutral third-party facilitator were squelched by several outspoken Emery County Public Lands members who accused commissioners of arranging back-room deals with us.) We hoped the next phase of the “process” would actually be a process.

    We participated in many fruitful field trips and informative meetings. Recently, however the field trips have ballooned into large groups of people, many of whom seemed less interested in solving specific issues and more concerned about ‘watch-dogging’ the Emery County officials who we’re worked with directly and for whom we have a great deal of respect. The meetings have become quite abusive, not only to us, but also BLM officials.

    When we learned in May that the county had begun crafting their proposal, this signaled that most of the information had been gathered and that the formal phase had begun. We wrote Emery County Commissioners a formal letter clearly stating that while we were temporarily stepping back and allow the county to consider their potential wilderness areas, our goal was unchanged: to reach an agreement with them by bridging the gap between their proposal and ours–America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. This give and take would be based on the valuable knowledge we’ve acquired from county officials and other individuals during the past two years. We asked them for their ideas about what the next steps might look like.

    Recently, two months after we sent our letter, we called hoping for an update on the next steps of ‘negotiation process’. We were told that there wouldn’t be any—that their proposal would become their bill. Instead they expect us to be another member of a large group of stakeholders whose information will be considered. This would be a terrible political mistake for us and waste the significant work we’ve done to build this into a national issue- and result in far less redrock protected.

    We were offering to settle wilderness issue once and for all, and even to drop our current Price Resource Management Plan litigation. Now, if they move forward—if the proposal they’re working on becomes draft legislation we see one of two possible outcomes: Either:

    • we’ll work to amend it in Congress by adding more wilderness and landscape protections, and then beginning the next day, we’ll start working on protecting what remains of ARRWA in Emery County; or, if their bill is bad enough, we’ll kill it.

    Regardless, we’ll keep pushing our RMP litigation, which once set aside by the Obama Administration will be re-done to protect more areas. We’ll begin pushing for The San Rafael Swell National Monument.

    We’ve learned a lot during our discussions in Emery, including the fact that support for and appreciation of wilderness—especially Red Rock Wilderness—continues to grow. We’re prepared for whatever comes next and we look forward to it.

  • June 28th, 2010

    After all the speculation and runaway rumors surrounding the future of the San Juan County process since Sen. Bennett’s loss in the Republican Caucus, we got some clarity yesterday. We received word that Sen. Bennett has determined that moving public lands legislation on the scale and importance of what a San Juan County bill could potentially be–will be–impossible this year. As it stands he will continue to direct the process he started back in April, moving it as far as he can before passing it off to Senator Hatch, whose staff met with San Juan County officials this past week.

    We think this is the right decision and we want to thank Senator Bennett for making it.

    This is all in keeping with comments made in a KUER interview aired June 21st. (Here’s the link if you missed it.

    Besides Senator Bennett’s remarks on the San Juan process, this interview also includes those of SUWA Executive
    Director, Scott Groene, who reiterated the importance of field trips, which were included in the original plans for San Juan County process and have played an important role in the on-going work in Emery County. Groene made the point that resolving these issues requires moving beyond the ideology surrounding wilderness, and the act of bringing all stakeholders together on-the-ground may be the only way this is possible.

    We hope that the Senator’s decision not to “fast-track” this process– allowing it the necessary time to get it right–means thoughtfully planned field trips.

    At the last scheduled meeting in late May, SUWA Attorney Liz Thomas presented Senator Bennett’s staff with a prioritized list of thirteen areas we would hope to visit during field trips based on existing conflicts. The top three areas —Arch Canyon, Moqui Canyon, and Nokai Dome—all have unique natural characteristics which are threatened by ORV’s using routes that should have never been included in the BLM’s Travel Plan and should be closed. We believe that this will be obvious to most stakeholders who are able to experience these places firsthand.