Factory Butte proposed wilderness.
Factory Butte proposed wilderness.

The redrock wilderness today confronts an extraordinary face-off between threats and opportunities.  Like drunken vectors, they careen around the Utah public lands arena, threatening every interest there.  One man’s threat is another’s opportunity.  But order might be made of the chaos.  First, let’s describe the assorted threats and opportunities.

Utah’s land grab: The State of Utah set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2014 for the United States to hand over 30 million acres of federal land.  Midnight is more likely to produce a pumpkin coach than any mad scramble by the feds to satisfy Utah’s ridiculous ultimatum.  This is the weakest player among the threats owing to its astronomical asininity.

RS 2477 litigation: Utah Governor Gary Herbert launched over 20 lawsuits against the United States, seeking control of more than 36,000 miles of “roads” crossing public lands.  If the suits succeed, they would rip apart southern Utah, a tragedy akin to Lake Powell’s drowning of the exquisite Glen Canyon.

Energy: Oil and natural gas production have surged under Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan.  Although industry holds millions of acres of surplus leases in Utah, this administration continues to lease and allow development on more public land.  The threat is controlled more by energy prices than by the land management agencies.

Off-road vehicles: Play machines (ORVs) have exploded in numbers and capability in the past two decades.  Even as the science shows that the damage is worse than we once thought, these machines are ever more capable of clambering over natural obstacles.

Each of the above threats will exacerbate the damage we can expect from climate change, which is already bringing southern Utah more heat, less water, more dust, more exotic species and more overall disruption.

BLM Resource Management Plans: These plans (RMPs), made final in the last days of the Bush administration, allow leasing, drilling and ORV use on millions of acres of Utah public lands.  SUWA and some coalition partners challenged all six plans that control a total of nearly 5.4 million acres of proposed redrock wilderness.  All ignored wilderness protection in favor of ORVs and oil and gas drilling.  A Utah federal district court recently considered our first challenge and struck down the RMP for over 2 million acres of spectacular public lands around Factory Butte, the Dirty Devil and the Henry Mountains (see article, page 11).  We are now in the remedy phase of the litigation and will move on to the other cases in order.  There is the potential for protecting vast areas from energy development and ORV use.

Greater Canyonlands National Monument: President Obama could protect this extraordinary area as a national monument, bypassing a dysfunctional Congress.  It would be controversial, but Obama has little to lose with such a move in right-wing Utah and much to gain politically elsewhere. The monument we envision would protect 1.4 million acres.

Master Leasing Plans: Utah’s State BLM Director recognized the deep flaws in the RMPs and started a new planning process to reconsider whether or not to lease certain areas (“master leasing plans”).   Taking advantage of better information, the agency should remedy past mistakes by protecting more areas from leasing.

America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (ARRWA):  This bill to designate over 9 million acres as wilderness could gain more Senate champions this year than ever.  It’s allowed us to build deep national support for southern Utah with leadership from our champions, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Rush Holt.  This support has enabled us to block 13 bad bills introduced by the Utah congressional delegation.  It forced former Sen. Bob Bennett to transform his Washington County legislation into a bill that was good for wilderness.  ARRWA is our backup whenever there is the threat of bad legislation.

The Future: The Whole Enchilada?  
It’s possible to imagine a scenario where all of these threats and opportunities are resolved for the eastern side of Utah through wilderness discussions led by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop.  A year ago, Congressman Bishop announced his intention to create legislation affecting over six million acres of BLM and National Forest proposed wilderness.  Not much has changed since then.

SUWA is the only organization that works on all of the threats and opportunities, and we’re far ahead of other interests in terms of on-the-ground knowledge.  Success in Mr. Bishop’s process seemed a wild long shot a year ago; it remains so today.

But we’re still willing to participate to ensure that any legislation that emerges from the process  protects the Redrock.  We believe such a deal is possible, if not terribly likely.  As we’ve explained to the state and counties, we think an agreement is possible in which they could get:

• An end to wilderness fights for 15 years or so. History shows that when a comprehensive wilderness bill passes with the support of the entire wilderness community, it kills political momentum for another bill (on the affected area) for over a decade.

• An end to the national monument “threat.”  If we can protect the Greater Canyonlands region as wilderness, there will be little reason to designate the area as a national monument.

• Ownership of a rational transportation system across the federal lands in Utah.  The state’s RS 2477 litigation will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take decades to resolve.  Even then, the result will be a hodge-podge of validated claims.  Instead, we could see the state receiving title to its real roads, with appropriate conditions, and in return closing those that conflict with wilderness.

• A useful pattern of state owned lands and a revenue stream for the counties.  The state owns hundreds of thousands of acres of nearly worthless, scattered state lands that could be blocked up into a coherent pattern in locations better suited for development.  These would generate funding for Utah’s education system, as intended.  And a cut of the revenue could be directed back to the counties from which the state sections are traded out.  The BLM would acquire the currently scattered state sections and could manage them consistently with adjacent federal lands, a benefit to conservation.

• An end to RMP litigation.  If we can protect wilderness through legislation, it would end the need for this litigation.  At SUWA, we’re amenable to resolving the litigation as part of an agreement.

This Is America’s Public Land. What Do We Get Out of It?
In exchange, we get a lot of wilderness—far, far more than the existing wilderness study areas that have been in place for decades and are already managed much like wilderness.  The real gain for wilderness is the acreage designated beyond the WSAs.

Will we get all six million acres at issue protected?  No.  We’ll have to make concessions.  With your help, we have worked to protect these lands for 30 years.  We are stronger than ever and ready to fight if necessary.  But we are also committed to seizing any opportunity to protect more of the redrock.  The agreement has a chance only if the State of Utah—especially the state legislature—gives up its ideological fantasies of seizing federal land, exchanging the juvenile joys of saber-rattling in favor of obtaining genuine benefits for constituents and communities.

Such an agreement is there to be crafted—one good for rural communities, the State of Utah, and the United States.  It would be good as well for wilderness and generations to come.  Some believe such a deal is impossible; they may be right.  But if long odds, even prohibitive odds, were enough to smother two generations of wilderness advocacy, we would not have a National Wilderness Preservation System today that tops 100 million acres.  And long odds or no, given the stakes for Utah wilderness it would be irresponsible of us not to try.

And we will try.

—Scott Groene

[From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, spring 2014 issue]