30th Anniversary LogoHave you been on a walk like this in the desert? One minute you’re zigzagging up a rise, heading for that over-there high point—careful not to bust the crust, briefly admiring the golden, velvety ants, marking the lurking prickly pear out of the corner of one eye.  The next minute—it can’t be more—you turn around and . . . wait!  Where’s camp?  Did I come from over there, or was it over  there?  How have I gotten this far, this high, so quickly?

These are moments that caution us to check our coordinates, get our bearings, look for landmarks, remembering that the most important of them might be behind us.

At SUWA, we find ourselves on such an outcrop, far from where we started, perhaps miles left to go. Suddenly, we are conscious that 30 years have passed under the feet of an army of redrock defenders.  Thousands of tireless activists and generations of staffers have each carried the load for a time, bringing us to this time and place with our charge—Utah’s precious wilderness—largely unscathed.

And now, with similar suddenness, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), for whom wilderness was once anathema, has approached us seeking to broker a comprehensive public lands bill that, if we are to support it, must necessarily protect significant pieces in the very heart of the Colorado Plateau.

After decades of fighting us, it seems our opponents would rather work with us and see us go away than continue to stand by as we chip away barriers to protecting this great landscape.

1995 Field Hearing on UT Delegation Bill
Outraged citizens make their voices heard at a congressional field hearing on the Utah delegation’s abysmal 1995 (anti-)wilderness bill. The legislation was defeated thanks to Utah wilderness activists and congressional champs. Copyright Amy O’Connor/SUWA.

Winning Bit by Bit

That means we are winning.  After 30 years, we’ve worn them down, bit by bit, raindrops on slickrock, creating new openings for progress.

It took an astonishing amount of work to bring us to where we are today.  Each time we appealed a bad BLM decision, each time an activist sent a letter to the editor, each member of Congress who became a new cosponsor of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, every hard-earned dollar a SUWA member sent in support our cause—each of these made us stronger and advanced our mission.

Since the original citizen’s inventory of Utah’s BLM lands in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, we have sought to save the dusty sandstone refuge of our hearts so our children and grandchildren can see it, roam it and love it as we have.

If we can do that by working with Mr. Bishop, we will.  But we will do so with no illusion that it will be easy.  Success will take compromise on both sides.  It will demand diplomacy from both sides.  It will require elbow grease and probably some swallowed pride all around.  We’re willing to give as good as we get on those fronts.  The stakes make the effort fully worthwhile.

Alternatives Remain

But make no mistake.  If this effort fails to deliver meaningful protection—protection worthy of one of the planet’s last great wilderness landscapes—we will not lose sight of our origins.  We know how to fight . . . and endure.  Through the years, we’ve outlasted countless opponents who posed challenges that once seemed insurmountable.

We still remember the landmarks we’ve passed, the days of a one-room office, a quasi-volunteer staff, of “Stop S.U.W.A.” hats for sale at Escalante’s Frosty Stop.  We remember sending our Kanab members’ newsletters in plain brown envelopes to protect them from the kind of obloquy only small minds in small towns can marshal.

We remember soundly drubbing the Utah delegation in the 1990s, killing their faux wilderness bills with the robust support of members of Congress who valued America’s public lands—a defiant Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a filibustering Sen. Bill Bradley.

We remember the triumph of the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

These were against-the-odds victories; we remember that, too.  We haven’t forgotten that we cut our teeth as underdogs.  We orient there as we advance.  We have to.

Because even as relations with at least some members of the Utah delegation have become less glacial, the State of Utah itself has grown increasingly and bizarrely antagonistic.  First, the legislature passed a boneheaded law asserting it will seize Utah’s federal lands in 2014 if the U.S. government doesn’t agree to hand them over.  That’s not going to happen, but it should make for an interesting show.  We’ll get the popcorn ready.

Harts Point Road Grader (with Dan Kent)1996
Wilderness activist Dan Kent blocks the path of a San Juan County road grader as it attempts to blade a “right-of-way” on Hart’s Point (just east of Canyonlands National Park) in the fall of 1996. The battle over county RS 2477 claims continues to this day.  Copyright Kevin Walker/SUWA.

A Wilderness-Lethal Threat

But the willful myopia of politicians who undervalue the great blessing that our public lands provide is no laughing matter.  In addition to the land grab, the festering sagebrush rebellion has burst another of its vile boils.  Gov. Gary Herbert and the State of Utah teamed up with county commissioners to file more than 20 lawsuits against the federal government, asserting that they should be granted rights-of-way to thousands of miles of so-called “routes” across public lands, many of which are just dry washes, the aimless meanderings of long-forgotten cowboys, and faint two-tracks in the otherwise wild desert.  RS 2477, the Civil War era law that enables this madness, has resurrected an anti-federal battle from the 1970s, when clueless but mad-as-hell westerners last gathered around the old Kool-Aid barrel.

This greedy flare-up has been smoldering for decades and now constitutes one of the greatest threats Utah’s wilderness has ever faced.  If these lawsuits are successful, the wild redrock as we know it will cease to exist—bisected by thousands of “routes” to be suddenly “improved” by the overzealous road crews of Utah’s southern counties. We’re putting every resource we have into fighting these lawsuits, and enlisting more.

One way to resolve this business of metastasizing roads and rights-of-way could be through our work with Rep. Bishop.  If a wilderness agreement neutralizes bogus claims in our wilderness proposal, we might sidestep the morass that will surely trap us for decades if these lawsuits have to wend their way through the courts.

Mr. Udall’s Vision, Deserving as Ever

We simultaneously have our eyes on another path to protection: creation of a national monument for the Greater Canyonlands region.  The great million-acre vision for Canyonlands National Park, which then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall articulated in the 1960s, remains unfulfilled.  Currently, the national park is just a third of that.  Its boundaries, drawn hastily in magic marker in a legislative horse trading exercise, remain a disservice to the landscape— one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 states, bursting with archeological and ecological wonder.

President Obama could rectify that with the stroke of his pen, restoring the promise of Canyonlands and protecting the core of Utah’s redrock.  We’ve delivered more than 15,000 postcards to the administration in support of designating a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.  Utahns have met with the administration, rallies have drawn eager crowds in Moab, and members of Congress have echoed their support.

This clamor will only grow.  If we have to send a man in a chicken suit to follow Interior Secretary Sally Jewell around, well, we know a little something about that, too.  We bird-dogged (chicken-dogged?) Al Gore during the New Hampshire and Iowa Presidential primaries in 2000—and his staff took notice.

We may be blowing out a few candles as we mark our 30th year, but we’re as hopeful and determined as ever.  We know we’ve gotten this far thanks to our tenacity, our intimate knowledge of the land, our endurance . . . but especially thanks to the

passion of our loyal membership.  You have served as cheerleaders, gut-checkers, inspiration and infantry on the front lines of this battle to save Utah’s wilderness.  We’ve come a long way in 30 years, and we got here together.

So where to next?  You already know.  In the desert, if you want a better view—and a real sense of where you are and why—the hard way is up, over obstacles and across the scree.  It’s the rewarding way, too.  We’ll meet you at the next rise.  Thanks for coming along, and for making the trip possible in the first place!

—Jen Ujifusa

[From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, autumn/winter 2013 issue]