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The Earth and all its inhabitants face the dire threats of climate change and the loss of nature, including extinctions. And in its first ten days the Biden administration has already taken meaningful steps to address those threats. It isn’t our job at SUWA to cheerlead for a particular administration, it’s our job to push them to go further. But we are very encouraged–even excited–by the Biden administration’s start.
This administration has set a 60-day target for review of Trump’s illegal evisceration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, with the clear intention of undoing those historic wrongs–and perhaps going a step further, with the larger boundaries originally proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
It has hit the pause button on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and offshore waters to consider the climate impacts.
It will review the Trump administration’s misdeeds, including the illegal elimination of environmental analysis and public involvement in controversial vegetation removal projects.
It will hold for 60 days a raft of last-minute Trump malfeasance including: issuance of oil/gas leases and drilling permits, mining plans of operation, decisions regarding RS 2477 claims, and approval of land exchanges.
And the Biden administration has set as a goal protecting 30 percent of our land and waters by the year 2030. This visionary goal will slow the loss of biodiversity and ameliorate the impacts of climate change.
Getting to 30×30 is essential, and the goal can only be reached by protecting lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), our nation’s largest land manager. America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act is an important part of getting there.
This will take a multipronged effort, and on the executive branch side, 30×30 goals can best be reached through the establishment of new wilderness study areas. This could bring real protection to tens of millions of acres of BLM lands across the American West, including millions of acres here in Utah.
The predictable and disappointing response from Utah’s governor and congressional delegation was denouncement of Biden’s efforts to confront the existential threat of climate change. Their persistence in clinging to past economies threatens our children’s future and the wellbeing of the planet.
There are big challenges ahead. Many of the administration’s goals will be difficult to implement in these divided States of America. The Utah politicians and those like them will fight for the status quo that seems favored by the rigid base they face in primaries. But the Biden administration clearly intends to manage public lands in a new way, following the guiding principle of addressing the climate and nature crises.
This op-ed by SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene was published in the online version of the Salt Lake Tribune on February 13, 2020.
With the reintroduction of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in Congress last week, it’s worth reflecting on how far wilderness has come in Utah.
Over the past 15 years, more than one million acres of public land in Utah have been protected as wilderness. And through land exchanges, litigation and management plans, hundreds of thousands of additional acres of redrock canyons and mesas have gained some form of protection.
During that same time, Utah politicians from top to bottom have spent millions of taxpayer dollars trying to prevent conservation and seize control of these lands from the public.
How has so much been protected in a state so openly hostile to conservation? The answer is America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
Over 30 years ago, Utahns recognized that over half of the wilderness in their state had been lost and decided they needed to act to protect the remaining canyon country. No one else would do it — not the politicians blinded by the past, nor federal agencies afraid to act. So volunteers spent years surveying the lands, and, with the leadership of Utah Rep. Wayne Owens, created America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (ARRWA) — legislation that today would protect 8.4 million acres of wilderness on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
With this vision, Utahns set out to defend and protect these lands. The national support they organized translated into the political strength necessary to block the Utah delegation from enacting shortsighted legislation that would have sliced the redrock country to bits. And it gave Utahns the power to prevent administrations from tearing the backcountry apart with energy development, clear cuts and off-road vehicle routes. The ubiquitous yellow “Protect Wild Utah” signs are the tip of an iceberg of a great citizens’ movement.
The latest fruit of these labors was the Emery County Public Land Management Act. What started as a political fight when Rep. John Curtis and former Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced terrible legislation for the San Rafael Swell ended up as a classic win-win scenario. Through hard work and difficult conversations, Republican Hatch and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin hammered out a deal to designate 663,000 acres of wilderness, ensuring that uniquely Utah landscapes like Muddy Creek, Labyrinth Canyon and the San Rafael Swell will be left undisturbed for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.
The people of Emery County succeeded in determining their own future, avoiding designation of a national monument other than the one they wanted: Jurassic National Monument. It was a significant accomplishment all around, though ultimately the bill designated less than half of the acres proposed for wilderness in the county.
Getting less than half of what we at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) know deserves protection was only acceptable because, as part of the bargain, Hatch and Durbin agreed that SUWA could continue to advocate for wilderness protection of the remaining undesignated lands through the landmark ARRWA legislation. That’s worth restating: SUWA’s ability to continue advocating for additional wilderness in Emery County was an explicit part of the deal.
Durbin and SUWA offered not to pursue additional wilderness in Emery County in return for more wilderness in the San Rafael Badlands, but Hatch’s office declined the offer. After Hatch’s retirement, Durbin met with Sen. Mitt Romney and made the same proposal. Romney, likewise, declined it.
Our members know SUWA wouldn’t walk away from hundreds of thousands of acres of redrock wilderness in exchange for nothing. Durbin’s insistence on doing what is right for the land is what got the protections added for Muddy Creek and Labyrinth Canyon in the first place.
Unfortunately, some of Utah’s politicians are attempting to rewrite history — ignoring the way the Emery County negotiations happened and pulling out their tired old playbook to attack ARRWA when it was recently introduced. Romney even went so far as to introduce his own wilderness bill in Illinois as a ploy to get back at Durbin, an absurd tactic considering Durbin enthusiastically supports wilderness. These theatrics are typical of our delegation whenever ARRWA is reintroduced in Congress, but they only serve to emphasize the bill’s power and importance.
As Utah’s population grows, protected lands become more precious. We need these places more than ever to hold carbon in the ground, to protect Native American homelands, to shelter stressed wildlife and, ultimately, for our own well-being. We’re always ready to roll up our sleeves and engage on tough public lands issues, and we look forward to the next opportunity.
Following public outcry and a formal protest from SUWA, this week the Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) deferred all of its proposed oil and gas leases in San Juan County from its March 2019 lease sale “due to additional environmental analysis required.”
The proposed leases were on the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep, and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.*
Simply put, these leases would not have been deferred if not for SUWA’s tireless defense of every acre of BLM public land deserving of wilderness protection in Utah.
It’s the nature of environmental defense that this victory is short-lived—although deferred, the parcels will likely be back up for sale at the September 2019 lease sale.
But SUWA will be there to fight those leases, too, and this decision by the BLM puts us in a strong position in our challenges to other BLM lease sales (from March and December 2018), because those lease sales relied on the same environmental analysis (surprise!). If it is insufficient now, then it was insufficient then.
Not all of our work results in victories, of course, and most of our work never makes the news. But you can be assured that SUWA will never give up and never give an inch in our defense of the Redrock.
Harry Truman once wished for a one-armed economist because he’d grown tired of hearing, “On the one hand…on the other hand.” This post-election wrap-up is a bit like that: slivers of hope set against hard reminders.
For public lands, the election’s best news is probably this: the blue wave that washed over the House also swept away Rob Bishop’s chairmanship of the House Resources Committee. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) will likely replace Bishop. Think Imperator Furiosa replaces Iago. It will be much more difficult for the Utah congressional delegation to move bad wilderness legislation.
We won’t really celebrate, though, until we get past the dangerous uncertainty of a lame duck Congress. Retiring Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is trying to ram through his Emery County legislation. This late in the game, his likeliest avenue is to slip his anti-wilderness bill inside some larger legislative package. It’s our job to see that he fails. Labyrinth Canyon, Muddy Creek and the San Rafael Badlands are in the balance.
But we hope the election will embolden Democratic leadership to block bad legislation in these few remaining weeks, even as their Republican counterparts redouble efforts to do all the damage they can before losing power. Lame duck congresses often prove to be duds; they can also be dangerous. Muddying this lame duck’s waters even further, Trump is relieved of whatever pressure he felt to act like an adult prior to the election. With a budget deadline of December 7, he may yet have the chance to shut down the government to indulge some momentary whim.
We’ll have to contend with the Trump administration for two more years; the election doesn’t change that. But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Trump’s trained seal, faces a number of ethics-related investigations that may distract him some from his assaults on public land. Offsetting that faint hope is the likelihood that the Bureau of Land Management will be ever more servile in its acquiescence to local Utah politicians and their anti-public lands demands.
The mid-terms did nothing to quash Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s massive litigation seeking control over national parks, monument, and wilderness through the antiquated and repealed RS 2477.
There were some changes among Utah’s congressional delegation. In potential good news for the environment, it appears Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams beat incumbent Republican Representative Mia Love. The outlook is less clear regarding former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who returned to Utah to collect the retiring Hatch’s seat. During his senate campaign, Romney pandered to the right wing on public land issues. We’ll see if he chooses to stay on the fringe.
At the state level, in what is the very essence of rotating bald tires, former San Juan County commissioner and all-terrain-vehicle protest rider Phil Lyman replaced long time State Representative Mike Noel. A leader in the state house, the bellicose Noel did his best to drag Utah backwards with false claims on public land issues and a penchant for wasting Utah tax dollars pushing his anti-federal views. Perhaps Lyman will surprise us by being something else. We doubt it.
Notably, this election brought real change to San Juan County, home of the Bears Ears National Monument. Native Americans Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes won two of three county commission seats. Both support the Bears Ears; both beat candidates who didn’t. This is an extraordinary shift of power to the Native American majority in a county where gerrymandering Anglo politicians have long suppressed Native needs and Native voices.
Make no mistake, Kenneth and Willie will face hostility from the entrenched county forces seeking to make them fail. Those forces were at work from the very beginning. The San Juan County Clerk sought to falsify documents in order to keep Willie off the ballot, but was busted by a federal judge. We wish the new commissioners success, and thank them for the courage to take on these offices.
We have survived half of the national nightmare of Donald Trump’s reign. Each year becomes more dangerous as blatantly unqualified political appointees remain in place and work their mischief, twisting and distorting the bureaucracies that manage our public lands.
We operate in an ever-changing political environment at every level. Politicians, bureaucrats and judges come and go. The constant is the red rock wilderness and our resolve to defend it. Thank you for being part of this movement.
As early as next week, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative John Curtis could introduce legislation for the San Rafael Swell and portions of Labyrinth and Desolation Canyons.
While we haven’t yet seen a final version of the bill, our review of previous drafts and recent communication with the delegation make us very concerned that this bill could significantly undercut these remarkable landscapes.
So far, the Utah delegation has refused to compromise on a one-sided wilderness proposal drummed up by local politicians — a proposal that omits Wilderness designation for more than one million acres that deserve protection.
And from the maps we’ve seen, the boundaries of what would be designated as Wilderness are absurd. For example:
While the main failure of this bill would be the lack of protection for the Swell’s iconic wilderness landscapes, we’re also concerned that the bill could include other poison pills:
From what we’ve seen, there is little or no conservation gain in this bill. In fact, this bill wouldn’t close a single off-road vehicle route. No lands that are threatened by leasing would be closed to leasing. We understand that part of the intention of the bill is, in fact, to prevent future conservation gains.
If the legislation turns out as bad as we fear, then with your support we’ll work to either block it, or work to improve it so that it’s legislation worthy of places like Labyrinth Canyon, Muddy Creek and the San Rafael Swell Badlands.
We’ve seen the Utah congressional delegation do this over a dozen times before: pursuing legislation for a handful of rural politicians, while ignoring the views of all other Utahns — let alone the American people who all share ownership of these lands.
We may know as soon as next week if this is just déjà vu all over again.