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Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
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BLM’s “wild west” mentality will deface Utah landscape
For Immediate Release
Laura Peterson, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-236-3762
Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, 646-823-4518
Phil Hanceford, The Wilderness Society, 303-225-4636
Salt Lake City, UT (August 1, 2019) – Three conservation organizations filed suit today in federal district court in Utah challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to open 5,400 acres of federal public lands around Utah’s Factory Butte to unrestricted cross-country motorized use. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society filed the lawsuit asking the court to reverse the BLM’s unlawful decision and direct that the closure be reinstated.
The BLM’s May 22, 2019 decision reversed a closure order that had been in place for more than twelve years. The agency gave no prior notice or opportunity for public input. Its reversal just before Memorial Day weekend allowed vehicles to immediately mar this remarkable landscape.
“It was irresponsible and anti-democratic for BLM to secretly open up this area and subject its ecosystem to destruction,” said Sharon Buccino, senior director for Lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The agency’s earlier move to close this area was a sound decision, based on science and extensive public input. BLM has to balance different uses of our public lands, but the ring around Factory Butte is no place for off road vehicles, which damage the soil and threaten endangered species.”
“The BLM’s decision to allow destructive, unregulated cross-country motorized use to overrun the remarkable public lands surrounding Factory Butte – one of Utah’s most well-known landmarks – is outrageous,” said Laura Peterson, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Though it refused to provide the public with any advance notice of its decision, the BLM consulted ahead of time with local counties and even shared its press release and promotional materials. That’s clearly not the way our federal public lands are supposed to be managed.”
The BLM did not explain its reasoning or provide an environmental analysis for its decision. Instead, BLM concocted a rationale days after its decision to lift the closure when BLM Richfield field officer manager Joelle McCarthy wrote a brief “Memo to File” on May 24, 2019. This memo was not made available to the public until May 28, 2019.
“Sneaking this plan out without public input shows that the BLM knew the public would be outraged by the decision to open treasured lands to unfettered motorized use that will permanently scar the land,” said Phil Hanceford, attorney for The Wilderness Society. “Anyone who has traveled through this area just outside of Capitol Reef National Park has marveled at the Factory Butte and the surrounding wilderness quality lands. The BLM’s actions are unacceptable and we believe the courts will agree.”
BLM’s decision to reverse a 2006 closure of the area to ORV use will allow unrestricted motorized travel throughout two “play areas” totaling a combined 5,400 acres.
The 2006 closure followed a petition Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed with the BLM outlining the devastating effects of unmanaged cross-country travel by ORVs in this area. The BLM concluded that closure was necessary to protect federally-listed cactus species, including the endangered Wright fishhook from mortality due to cross-country ORV travel. SUWA has monitored the Factory Butte ORV closure area since 2006 and has documented ongoing and intentional ORV violations and associated damage to natural resources.
Photographs of the remarkable Factory Butte area are available on SUWA’s website, along with a timeline of OHV use at Factory Butte and a point-by-point refutation of BLM’s misleading arguments about why it lifted the closure on cross-country motorized use.
A copy of the complaint can be viewed here.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 435-259-5440 email@example.com
Salt Lake City, UT (May 14, 2019) – Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) withdrew a 2018 decision authorizing the destruction of more than 2,500 acres of pinyon pine and juniper trees within the Desolation Canyon and Jack Canyon Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the Tavaputs Plateau region of eastern Carbon County, Utah. The BLM’s decision came on the heels of the filing of a lawsuit in federal district court by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) which challenged the removal project as unlawful and in violation of federal laws.
The BLM had proposed the destruction of the trees by mastication, a destructive and heavily surface-disturbing method of vegetation removal that involves uprooting trees where they stand and shredding them by means of a wood chipper/mulcher mounted to a large front-end loader, which is driven cross-country throughout a project area.
In its lawsuit, SUWA alleged that the BLM’s decision—to use heavy machinery including bullhog masticators to remove pinyon pine and juniper forests on the Tavaputs Plateau just one mile from the western rim of Desolation Canyon—violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the agency’s legal obligation not to “impair” wilderness suitability in designated WSAs.
Shortly after SUWA filed its lawsuit, the BLM withdrew its approval of all portions of the vegetation removal project that would have occurred within the Jack Canyon and Desolation Canyon WSAs.
In response to the BLM’s withdrawal of the project, SUWA Wildlands Attorney Kya Marienfeld issued the following statement:
“Although we certainly wish the BLM had made this decision sooner, it’s encouraging to see that the agency realizes the unlawful nature of its plans to masticate pinyon-juniper forest in two pristine and remote Wilderness Study Areas. We are pleased that the agency made the right decision to follow its mandate to protect these remarkable locations from harm and from all actions that impair their world class ecological and wilderness values.
“Using large vehicles and heavy machinery—whether bullhog masticators or anchor chains—to systematically wipe out thousands of acres of forest is completely incompatible with the protection of wilderness values and the preservation of wildlands and ecosystems.”
Far from the only project that threatens to destroy wilderness values and other remarkable resources in an alleged attempt to save those same values, the BLM recently approved a similar vegetation destruction project in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. SUWA and other conservation groups have appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. In addition, the BLM is actively considering several other similar projects in the monument and Utah’s west desert.
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.