Congress passed the Emery County Public Land Management Act in late February and it was signed into law on March 12th. The bill’s title is mundane enough, even yawn-inducing. But its contents are tremendous for the redrock.

Labyrinth Canyon, Desolation Canyon, Muddy Creek and the San Rafael Swell will all be protected as part of the bill’s designation of 663,000 acres of wilderness. Its passage ranks as the most significant legislative victory in SUWA’s history. The Emery County bill did not start out as a good bill, but through a lot of hard work it became one.

Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

For so many Utahns, the San Rafael Swell region is their first real exposure to Utah’s redrock country. Just a few hours’ drive from the major population centers of the Wasatch Front, the Swell is an accessible weekend destination. It’s a personal landscape to many of us, including to me. As a student at Utah State University, my friends and I would spend weekends camping at The Wedge, peering into the great maw of the “Little Grand Canyon.”

Several years ago my high school friends and I spent a glorious weekend at Family Butte, scrambling the cliff faces and marveling at petrified logs. For years the SUWA Roundup has been held at Hidden Splendor in the San Rafael Swell. East of the Swell lies Labyrinth Canyon, where my husband and I took our newly married best friends on a river trip as their wedding gift. So many of us have stories about these places. The protections we’ve secured with the help of our members and conservation partners ensure that those stories can continue to be written, and that the creatures that call the Swell their home can thrive there for generations.

A Long Struggle and then a Breakthrough
In many ways this bill has been decades in the making. SUWA has defeated six prior proposals for the San Rafael Swell that did not do justice to the landscape. We thought this was going to have to be the seventh.

Emery County had cooked up a proposal as part of Representative Rob Bishop’s (R-UT) failed Public Lands Initiative, and when that process crashed in the last Congress, the county still wanted to get it enacted. Representative John Curtis (R-UT) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) took up the cause and last year introduced legislation that was exactly what county officials wanted: the barest amount of wilderness they thought they could get away with.

From the outset we approached Hatch and Curtis with our own proposal and sought serious negotiations to hammer out a deal. But their party had majorities in both chambers and they thought they could pass the legislation without our blessing. Instead of working with SUWA and our partners, they sought fig-leaf endorsements from the Pew Charitable Trusts and other non-Utah-based groups whose standards for what constitutes a meaningful conservation gain aren’t, shall we say, as rigorous as ours.

We remained at loggerheads as spring and then summer passed. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), the champion of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (ARRWA) in the House, raised significant concerns in the bill’s hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee and attempted to add more acreage to the bill in the committee process. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), an ARRWA congressional champion for 20 years, sought compromise with Hatch through several meetings but made no meaningful headway.

From Tough Challenge to Ordeal
When the Emery bill was added to a public lands package the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had assembled our challenge grew: suddenly, to defeat the bill we’d have to convince members of Congress that not only was the Emery bill bad, but it was bad enough that it should persuade them to oppose a package that had some of their own conservation priorities in it.

We deployed a cheeky last resort, dropping a rubber dinosaur hand puppet at every Senate office with a clear message against the ill-conceived bill. The puppets were a sensation, with staffers Snapchatting images of them between offices and playing with them at the front desks. Suddenly, a bill that seemed okay to many had a lot of bad buzz.

Finally, with just about a week left to go in the last legislative session, we had a breakthrough. Sen. Durbin, who was threatening to hold up the bill, successfully negotiated significant wilderness additions for the Muddy Creek and Labyrinth Canyon regions. With these additions on the southern and eastern border of Emery County, the bill now protected about 663,000 acres of wilderness. And we were able to negotiate this with delegation members who have been traditionally opposed to wilderness—and with Donald Trump in the White House (err, Mar-a-Lago).

Muddy Creek Wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

The Places
The legislation provides well-deserved wilderness protection for Desolation Canyon, Labyrinth Canyon, and large swaths of the San Rafael Swell—most notably in the Muddy Creek area.

  • Desolation Canyon is one of the premier roadless areas in the lower 48 states, beloved by rafters who seek out the rapids on that stretch of the Green River. Deso, as it is fondly known, is home to a wide array of wildlife including bighorn sheep, elk, black bears, mountain lions, and raptors—and five endangered species.
  • For those seeking solitude with a bit less splash, Labyrinth Canyon’s stretch of the Green River offers the longest multi-day flatwater wilderness float trip west of the Mississippi.
  • Muddy Creek is one of the biggest intact wilderness areas in Utah; securing protection for the Emery County piece of it will help us in the future as we seek the same result for the portion that stretches into Wayne County. Wilderness, naturally, does not truck with the arbitrary political lines man doodles across it.

All told, this legislation largely protects the greater San Rafael Swell, either as wilderness or as a recreation area that is withdrawn from mineral entry (in plain words, no new mining claims) and closed to the construction of new off-road vehicle routes. And about 70 miles of river have been added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

Lessons Learned
Our strategy over more than 30 years has rested on the belief that if we hold fast to defeat inadequate proposals, eventually we can improve them. We’ve nationalized the issue of Utah wilderness with the help of our grassroots activists who maintain the drumbeat with their members of Congress around the country. And the bulwark of support from those legislators, in turn, provides us with the leverage to resist the bad proposals that come out of the Utah delegation. The strategy provides only incremental progress and can be frustrating at times, but eventually it works to the benefit of wild country. This legislation illustrates the point. When we compare this bill to what Representative Jim Hansen (R-UT) proposed for Emery County in a 1995 statewide wilderness bill—which we defeated—the difference is startling. Hansen envisioned almost no wilderness for Emery County.

We may have had to fight during the intervening 19 years, but we’ll wait a long time to be proven right. The tremendous final shape of this bill also belies the notion that big wilderness is politically unachievable in Utah. We have always known otherwise and here is proof. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rep. John Curtis, and the Emery County commissioners deserve credit for pushing past the old ways of thinking and embracing the fact that these lands belong to all Americans and their fate cannot be dictated by parochial stakeholders alone.

None of this could have been achieved without the steadfast support of our members. It is you who have made redrock wilderness protection a movement, who give us the power and flexibility to be nimble in our approaches, and on whose behalf we fight for what’s right. Thank you for hanging in there with us. The fights we have to take on are not easy and rarely quick, but they are worth it.

—Jen Ujifusa

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, spring 2019 issue)