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Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
Join our email list to stay informed about Utah wilderness.
Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
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*Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. All contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
The Trump administration today offered up more than 150,000 acres of public land in Utah for fossil fuel development, including in the heart of some of the state’s most iconic landscapes. In response, dozens of Utahns gathered at a press conference in the State Capitol Rotunda to raise their voices in protest.
The Bureau of Land Management’s online auction offered 105 parcels of public land for oil and gas leasing and development, some within 10 miles of internationally beloved protected areas including Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Bears Ears and Hovenweep national monuments, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The sale also threatens public lands with wilderness characteristics.
SUWA staff attorney Landon Newell explained that “Since December 2017 through its upcoming March 2019 lease sale, the BLM will have offered for oil & gas leasing and development approximately 500 lease parcels, consisting of more than 735,000 acres of public lands in Utah. This is an increase of more than seven-fold from what was offered over a similar time frame by the BLM under the Obama administration.”
Fossil fuel development in these areas threatens multiple sensitive plants and animals, including the Greater sage-grouse, Black-footed ferret, Mexican spotted owl, White River penstemon and Graham’s beardtongue. It also stands to exacerbate already critical air quality problems in the Uinta Basin and would use tremendous amounts of water even as Utah closes out its driest year in recorded history.
Adding insult to injury, the BLM is rushing to sell off ever larger tracts of our shared heritage in furtherance of the Trump administration’s ill-conceived “energy dominance” agenda, and the agency has moved to “streamline” its lease sale process by eliminating perceived “roadblocks” to energy development. These so-called roadblocks include, according to the agency, regular environmental review and public participation. As a result, the BLM has sold-off hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands for oil and gas development without fully involving the public or analyzing the impacts of its leasing decisions.
Westminster College sophomore Eliza Van Dyk put the lease sale in perspective as she conveyed the feelings of an entire generation. “Oil and gas leasing threatens to shatter our visions for a better world. For every well drilled, they are exacerbating the struggles of people who are already intimately experiencing the pain of climate change. And yet, BLM is leasing our futures without even letting us have a say! The absence of an accessible public comment period in the December lease sale has been a despicable violation of our rights as young people to secure just and livable futures for generations to come.”
Marc Thomas of the Sierra Club’s Glen Canyon Group added, “These parcels offered for sale are almost always rubberstamped with a ‘finding of no significant impact’ regardless of what treasures they contain, whatever other values they may have, and whether they’ve ever even been inventoried.”
SUWA believes that this uninformed “lease first, think later” approach to oil and gas leasing and development adopted by the BLM is both a disservice to the American people and unlawful. We intend to challenge the agency’s leasing decisions in court.
When the destruction we witness daily on our public lands becomes disheartening, service work is our most immediate antidote. The dread we experience witnessing drought-death among the piñon-juniper woodlands of southern Utah, or learning of yet another environmentally-destructive policy impacting our public lands, earns reprieve in direct, hands-on service.
It is a balm for fiery times to convene with those who share our concerns and restore dignity to the landscapes so severely impacted by an “energy dominance” agenda in Washington. We all live at the intersection of environmental and social justice, and our stewardship of wild places is a measure of the health of our human communities.
SUWA’s service program was created to implement and support appropriate and effective land management practices among the agencies entrusted with protecting wild Utah. We are grateful for our volunteers and the good people in positions of authority willing to do the right thing to ensure that Utah’s wilderness-quality lands remain wild.
Taking Account of Our Accomplishments
In 2018, 226 volunteers joined 21 specialized SUWA service projects across Utah. Our committed crews tackled off-road vehicle (ORV) compliance issues, working hard to reclaim, naturalize and revegetate miles upon miles of closed and illegal routes in the Deep Creek Mountains, the San Rafael Swell, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Cedar Mountain Wilderness, and hard-hit WSAs everywhere in between.
Our volunteers also dismantled and naturalized over 100 nonpermitted campsites scarring the canyons of Cedar Mesa and the Wah Wah, Notch Peak and Swasey Mountain wilderness study areas.
We installed signs and built strategic natural barriers of downed wood and drystacked stone to protect the magnificent wild lands identified in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act from errant motorized vehicles. Where appropriate, we also built, repaired, or improved over 2,000 feet of boundary and exclosure fence in places like Bears Ears National Monument to protect natural and cultural resources from further degradation by people and—you guessed it—good old fashioned ungulates.
In January, we piloted the Wilderness Stewards—a volunteer-driven initiative to monitor and assess reclamation needs on public lands. Thirty-six Washington County residents attended a two-day session with our field staff and local BLM rangers to train in monitoring the county’s extensive wilderness. In 2019, we will expand our Wilderness Stewards initiative throughout Utah’s counties, working with you to ensure that our public lands are protected.
Essential to our mission (and our future), we increased efforts to provide access to the tools and training necessary to empower Utah’s young people to serve on public lands. We worked with first generation college students from the University of Utah, alternative break students, gap-year high schoolers, and young professionals in Utah’s recreation industry—all with the explicit goal of empowering these rising generations to serve as stewards of our state’s living redrock legacy.
I invite you to register as a Field Volunteer with SUWA this winter and—come Spring—to join us as we continue our work across Utah.
Hispanic Heritage Month is observed nationally from September 15th to October 15th to commemorate the important contributions of Hispanic and Latinx peoples to America’s cultural tapestry. The wild public lands of the Colorado Plateau hold the histories of these peoples in their canyon walls, rivers, and mountains. In advocating for the preservation of America’s redrock wilderness, SUWA recognizes the influence these individuals and communities have in shaping the story of Utah’s canyon country, and the important role our wild places can play in inspiring and engaging them for generations to come.
Hispanic & Latinx histories on the Colorado Plateau predate American colonialism and even Mexican nationhood. Before Mexico or the State of Utah drew their boundaries on the Colorado Plateau, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people lived in the American southwest. According to Dr. Armando Solorzano of the University of Utah, anthropologists believed the ancient Aztecs began their migration to the contemporary Mexico City area from southeastern Utah and eventually migrated throughout North America. Some ultimately settled in Mexico, some moved northwest to the Pacific Coast, and some remained in the American Southwest. The histories of native Latinx ancestors live on today in what we know as America’s redrock wilderness.
Hispanic Heritage Month also recognizes the legacies left by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries as they made their way west across the Colorado Plateau. Their stories are remembered today in part through the names of well-known places and landmarks. For example, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Escalante River take their names from the Spanish priest Padre Silvestre Vélez de Escalante of the historic Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776. Dominguez and Escalante were sent from the Mission of Santa Fe, New Mexico to find a route to Monterey on the Pacific Coast. Though a harsh winter freeze ended their expedition in what is today Utah’s Washington County, the path they took helped establish the Spanish Trail, a crucial trade and settlement route with its heyday from 1829 to 1848. If not for this earlier Spanish exploration, U.S. westward expansion and Mormon resettlement into the southwest and California may not have been achievable.
Other names that stuck from the observations of Spanish travelers in this historic era include the La Sal Mountains near Moab, literally translated as The Salt Mountains. One can imagine the peculiarity of seeing greyish-white colored peaks beyond the Moab valley’s August heat for the first time; some say Spaniards believed the peaks to be white with salt and named the range accordingly. The San Rafael Swell also takes its name from the patron saint of travel, San Rafael, known in English as the archangel St. Raphael. It is said that the Spaniards prayed to San Rafael as they made their way through the desert’s formidable uplifted land formations to their mission in Monterey, and the name has remained since.
Today, the San Rafael Swell is of special value to Utah’s residents for its recreational, scientific, historical, cultural, and scenic character. It is a place residents of Utah’s urban Wasatch Front can easily visit for a weekend to explore slot canyons, sandstone mesas, and desert waterways like Muddy Creek and the San Rafael River. As such, it carries unique importance for Utah’s urban Latinx and Hispanic communities.
According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, 347,625 Latinx people live along the Wasatch Front, accounting for 83% of Utah’s Hispanic and Latino population. Protecting the integrity of the San Rafael Swell’s 1.4 million acres of redrock wildlands also protects the ability of Utah’s communities of color to enjoy these iconic landscapes. Given the high incidence of poverty and environmental injustice faced by these communities, one could argue that they may especially benefit from the healing afforded by spending time in wilderness.
Because of its proximity to Utah’s Latinx residents, the San Rafael Swell is the first wild landscape that many in this community may visit to seek refuge from everyday stressors, if only for the weekend. Among the many reasons to protect the San Rafael Swell and Utah’s other wild landscapes is the opportunity they provide for these residents to reconnect with nature and experience the deep silence and foundations of life abundant in wilderness. Such connections may well inspire a whole new generation to advocate on behalf of Wild Utah.
Hispanic Heritage Month encompasses the past, present and future. As we celebrate the histories and contemporary contributions of Hispanics to the American story, we also look forward to a future where America’s redrock wilderness improves the wellbeing of all who experience its beauty, its layered history, and its quiet solace — including Hispanics, Latinos, communities of color and underserved communities everywhere.
More than 300 passionate wilderness advocates poured into the Salt Lake City Main Library for the People’s Hearing on the San Rafael Swell last night. The auditorium filled to overflowing as Utahns showed up to call for greater protection for the San Rafael Swell and surrounding wild lands.
Speaker after speaker described how the Emery County Public Land Management Act (H.R. 5727/S. 2089) fails to do justice to the globally significant wild lands in the San Rafael Swell and nearby Labyrinth and Desolation Canyons. The Act could determine the future of 1.5 million acres of scenically spectacular wildlands that are also laden with cultural artifacts, including extraordinary rock art.
Frustrated by the failure of Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative John Curtis to provide a meaningful opportunity for people outside Emery County to help shape a public lands bill for the region, the Utah Wilderness Coalition and fifteen other organizations hosted the “People’s Hearing” so those outside the county could express their views. Senator Hatch and Representative Curtis were invited but declined to attend.
Scott Groene, Executive Director of SUWA, started off the evening by describing how the proposed Emery County bill is actually a step backwards for conservation. “The bill is worse than the status quo,” said Groene. “[It] would designate less wilderness than already has protection as Wilderness Study Areas or Natural Areas. Over 900,000 acres of deserving wild lands are left unprotected as wilderness. At the same time, the bill makes off-road vehicle abuse worse by enshrining 800 miles of off-road vehicle routes, effectively perpetuating an old, illegal and overturned travel plan.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski decried the Emery County bill as a “long-term plan to rip up this landscape” and criticized the Utah delegation for failing to provide opportunities for public input. “Without this People’s Hearing happening here tonight,” she said, “there is no public forum on this issue.”
Shaun Chapoose, member and former chairman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee, described the bill as “another attack on our tribal lands and resources. Another modern day Indian land grab just like Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative from a couple of years ago.” He added, “The Ute Indian Tribe is yet another voice that did not get a seat at the table when they were drafting this bill. We found out about the bill in the days before it was introduced.”
Chapoose, who also encouraged the crowd to become good stewards of the land they occupy, received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“In the morning when you get up, when the sun is just rising over the mountains, when the animals are already up: how many people take that for granted? If we do not take care of the land, people will look back in the future and say people should have done something to take care of this land.” —Shaun Chapoose
Lauren Wood, a third generation river runner who helps her family operate Holiday River Expeditions, an outdoor adventure company, said the company was not asked for their input, despite the fact that they have been based primarily in Emery County since 1973 and operate rafting and biking trips in the San Rafael Swell, Desolation Canyon, and Labyrinth Canyon—all wild areas affected by the bill. “They speak of public process but those cherry-picked to represent the ‘public’ do not represent the whole, and the whole is exactly what we need if we hope to have a chance in this beautiful and very climate changing state.”
“You can’t protect the lower drainage of a river and not protect the canyons and creeks that drain into it; the impact to the resource is cumulative. Land parcels, like stakeholders, can’t be cherry-picked if we want a chance for a legitimate future for wilderness or communities in our backyard.” —Lauren Wood
Dennis Willis, who worked for over 30 years as a rangeland, recreation and wilderness planner with the Bureau of Land Management in the region, called the bill “a minimalist approach to wilderness.” Willis described how the baseline for the bill was not an authentic assessment of how many acres of wilderness-quality lands actually exist in Emery County, but a “totally discredited, bogus and flawed inventory” from the 1980s. Willis decried the Utah delegation’s complete deference to the local county commission.
“The local voice is important, but it shouldn’t be the only voice. Yellowstone should not be managed by residents of Cody, Wyoming.” —Dennis Willis
Jerry Spangler, a professional archaeologist and executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, described how the bill will irrevocably damage archaeological sites in the area. “They want to permanently designate vehicle routes as open without doing the surveys necessary to find out if those routes will harm archaeological sites. Yet we know from past experience that hundreds and hundreds of sites could be harmed, and the courts have ordered them to complete inventories.” Spangler highlighted the Molen Reef area, a landscape rich in Native American rock art, that the bill would throw open to oil and gas leasing. “Only 1% of the area has been inventoried,” he said.
“The BLM has never gone out and looked. If they did, they would find a wealth of very important rock art sites. You can’t manage if you don’t have that information.” —Jerry Spangler
Samuel Graham, an immigrant from Venezuela who made Utah home “to be closer to the clarity of spirit which the desert provides,” said “for constituents like me, public lands are the only place we can escape the demands of the city.”
“Originally, my family and I fled Venezuela, a country which lost the moral battle for its people. The first class I attended was civics, where I learned about the values of America and the symbols that represent those values: Statue of Liberty for diversity, our constitution to empower people, the vast untouched West to represent the spirit. Now the battle for America’s morality is here and it starts with protecting our public lands.” —Samuel Graham
Robert Davies, physicist and climate change educator, detailed how the bill failed to consider the need to protect large landscapes to help avoid, and mitigate, the impacts of climate change. “Much of the damage we have done cannot be undone. But so much damage yet to come can be prevented. We know how: species need habitat,” said Davies. “Astute public policy would keep this habitat, and the whole of the Swell, intact and unbroken.”
Many more individual citizens spoke on behalf of protecting the San Rafael Swell. A few highlights:
“These lands are why people live here, why people come here. We don’t have a coal plant on our license plate. We have an arch and a skier.”
“Like other redrock pilgrims, I’ve run Desolation Canyon, I’ve hiked down Muddy Creek with my family. I’ve clambered through slot canyons sliced through the Reef. I’ve come upon wild horses at Cedar Mountain on my way to camp on the Moroni Slopes. I’ve photographed the Black Dragon pictograph and that universe of Native spirituality pecked into the cliffs at the Rochester rock art site. This bill does not adequately protect these astonishing landscapes.” —Stephen Trimble
“I want to speak for the people who inhabited the Swell a long time ago and who left behind galleries and galleries of irreplaceable rock art. The Emery County bill gives no protection for this precious part of all our heritage.”
—Diane Orr, Utah Rock Art and Research Association
“I would like to ask Senator Hatch and Representative Curtis, have you seen the San Rafael Swell? When you are out in the quiet and solitude of Mother Earth, do you feel the divine spirit? I ask you to search your soul and see if this bill should be set aside.”
—Ty Markham, Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance
203,000 Acres of Remote and Wild Lands Including in the San Rafael Desert and Dirty Devil Regions to be Auctioned Off for Oil and Gas Leasing and Development
SOUTHERN UTAH WILDERNESS ALLIANCE * NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL * SIERRA CLUB * THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
For Immediate Release
July 26, 2018
Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991
Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society, 303.807.6918
Carly Ferro, Sierra Club, 801.467.9294 x100
Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, 202.513.6263
Salt Lake City: Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced its plans to offer 109 leases, consisting of 203,321 acres of federal public land, for oil and gas development, including 158,944 acres of public lands in the heart of Utah’s San Rafael Desert and northern Dirty Devil region. BLM’s latest assault on Utah’s wild lands is entirely in lockstep with the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda and will sacrifice some of Utah’s wildest and most remote landscapes in pursuit of this quixotic goal. Photographs of the San Rafael Desert are available here. A map of the parcels up for auction is available here.
“This is a textbook example of what Trump’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda looks like in Utah, a full-on assault against one of our state’s wildest places” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The oil and gas industry has been trying to get its hands on this remote, wild corner of Utah’s redrock country for years and we’ve fought them off. They’re not going to get it this time either without a fight.”
At its September 2018 lease sale, BLM will auction off parcels overlapping (and adjacent to) Highway 24— the main access route to Goblin Valley State Park—as well as parcels less than two miles from the Horseshoe Canyon extension of Canyonlands National Park (and only a few miles farther from the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park). The National Park Service has stated that Horseshoe Canyon “contains some of the most significant rock art in North America.” This includes the “Great Gallery”—a world-renowned panel of well-preserved life-sized figures with intricate designs.
“BLM’s ‘lease-everything, lease-everywhere’ oil and gas agenda will have significant long-term impacts to Utah’s wild public lands,” said Landon Newell, Staff Attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The clean air, expansive vistas, quite stillness, and sense of wildness enjoyed in these areas will be lost to the sights and sounds of industrial development including pumpjacks, drill rigs, and natural gas flaring.”
“BLM is focusing on leasing to the exclusion of all other multiple uses,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel and Director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “This process has shown a disturbing lack of concern for the invaluable resources and experiences that will be lost, and hasn’t taken into account input from the American public.”
“Our public lands are being sold out with little to no concern for the public will or well-being, allowing oil and gas drilling to eat up wild places and encroach further on parks like Canyonlands. This foolhardy rush to mine and drill every possible acre could have irreparable consequences for our health, environment and climate,” said Ashley Soltysiak, Director of Utah Sierra Club.
In its rush to auction off these remarkable public lands, BLM drastically reduced opportunities for public involvement. The agency allowed for only a fifteen-day public “scoping” period but provided little more than a few maps for public review. BLM provided no opportunity for the public to review or comment on the draft environmental assessments and reduced the public protest period (which started today) from 30 days to 10 days.
There is no need to sacrifice Utah’s remarkable wild places for oil and gas leasing and development. Utah, like most western states, has a surplus of BLM-managed lands that are under lease but not in development—with only forty-five percent of its total leased land currently in development. There were approximately 2.5 million acres of federal public land in Utah leased for oil and gas development (here—follow hyperlink for Table 2 Acreage in Effect) at the close of BLM’s 2017 fiscal year. At the same time, oil and gas companies had less than 1.2 million acres of those leased lands in production (here—follow hyperlink for Table 6 Acreage of Producing Leases). More information regarding BLM’s September 2018 lease sale is available here.