With the inauguration of Barack Obama four years ago, redrock wilderness supporters reasonably expected some righting of the imbalance in public lands management that characterized eight years of the Bush administration.

Bush’s Interior Department, and especially its Bureau of Land Management (BLM), made an art form out of ceding important public values to private profit and destructive recreation for a small minority of public lands users.

Obama campaigned against that sort of lopsided governance.  Administration actions in the early days seemed to affirm our optimism.  Within a month of his inauguration, the President had signed into law a wilderness package protecting over 2 million acres of public land, including 186,000 acres in Utah’s Washington County—lands also proposed for wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (ARRWA).  A few weeks later, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s first major action in office was to cancel the controversial 77 oil and gas leases in the heart of the redrock that a waning Bush administration sold in a last-ditch, free-for-all bazaar. That change thing was looking very good.  But not for very long.

First term blues: the Obama administration did nothing to correct the terrible Bush-era land use plans that surrendered thousands of acres to development and ORV use. Drilling in the Desolation Canyon region was also approved in Obama’s first term. River runners on the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River, pictured above, would be impacted by that decision.

Delays, Reversals, Hostility
Since those days, redrock supporters have endured a string of delays, reversals, and in a few cases outright hostility towards Utah’s redrock country. Perhaps the biggest blow has been the Obama administration’s perverse embrace of the Bush administration’s horrid Resource Management Plans (RMPs).  These six plans prescribed management for over 11 million acres of redrock country in Utah for up to 20 years.  They surrendered thousands of pristine acres to oil and gas exploration and off-road vehicle use.  Travel plans, completed at about the same time, designated thousands of miles of ORV routes, directing vehicles to drive along wash bottoms, abandoned seismic lines and illegally constructed trails.  The environmental consequences of these decisions were never considered.

Certainly, SUWA will challenge all these RMPs in court.  But, based on Obama’s campaign rhetoric, we expected a helpful partner in this effort.  Instead, the administration is actually defending these plans against citizen challenges.  Meanwhile, the BLM continues to issue permits for a host of off-road vehicle events, some of which the agency admits are damaging to landscapes and archaeological sites.

Obama’s record on energy has not been quite so lopsidedly bad, though his eagerness to be seen as pro-drilling has dictated some ugly activity in Utah. Approval of Gasco Energy’s plan to drill in wild Desolation Canyon is a prime example.

As noted, we saw some progress with Salazar’s cancellation of the dreadful 77 leases in eastern Utah.  The BLM also undertook a review of the RMPs and proposed master leasing plans to help ensure that bad planning decisions would not cause trouble down the road.  But the agency has delayed those plans repeatedly, giving the oil and gas industry and its congressional allies more time to weaken proposals that were never much better than mediocre to start with.

Oil Shale and a Wildlands Policy
The Bush administration offered lavish giveaways for would-be oil shale and tar sands developers. Salazar excised the worst excesses of the plans.  But they still offer too much land in Utah for commercial leasing and would still allow oil shale development on lands proposed for protection in ARRWA and the Greater Canyonlands Region.

The Upper Kanab Creek proposed wilderness is among many scenic landscapes the BLM can no longer identify as wilderness study areas thanks to the 2003 no-more-wilderness deal involving former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt. The Obama administration has failed to remedy this disastrous backdoor agreement

Salazar unveiled a wildlands policy that would have helped remedy the collusive no-more-wilderness deal that Bush Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt struck in 2003.  But Salazar hastily disowned it with the first hint of the utterly predictable resistance from western interests who have the BLM right where they want it—and mean to keep it that way.  Salazar replaced the policy with a lame little list of places that Congress should protect, as if this dysfunctional assembly could protect anything but its own interests.

More recently, the BLM is considering proposals to allow potash leasing and development  (impacts from which are similar to those from oil and gas drilling) on spectacular Hatch Point within the Greater Canyonlands region just east of Labyrinth Canyon near Moab.

A trickle—even a modest trickle—of national monument proclamations from the White House could have done much to boost flagging spirits.  We’ve seen only the occasional drip.  That could change in Obama’s second term.  If it does not, though, it focuses an exceptionally bright light on our major issue with the president: he seems to have no vision whatsoever for the future of America’s public estate, and no apparent sense of responsibility for undoing the damage his predecessor caused (and in which Obama himself has sometimes chosen to be complicit—to wit, defense of the Bush RMPs).

First Steps Toward Recovery?
A safely re-elected Barack Obama has nominated REI executive Sally Jewell as his next Interior Secretary.  She brings to the enterprise a diverse background in the oil, finance and outdoor recreation industries.  She’s not steeped in public lands policy as many of her predecessors have been.  That doesn’t much concern us.  Knowledge can be acquired, experts hired.  Interior needs a visionary, not a mechanic.  Jewell is a capable executive and that suggests an ability to reshape an organization.  She understands the economic benefits of human-powered outdoor recreation and the threat that climate change poses.  Jewell is equipped to develop a vision for threatened public lands, not just for the next four years but the next four decades.

The Obama administration has a real opportunity to change its course on public lands.  The question is not whether it has time enough and space—it does—but whether it has will enough and steel.  We don’t know the answer.  But we do know this: no matter how dedicated a conservationist Sally Jewell is, she can only operate to the end of the White House’s political tether.  We hope it will be either very long or very elastic; there is much to do.

Where to Begin: Roads, Rigs and Rapacious Land-Grabbers
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt served as Interior Secretary for both Clinton terms.  He recently offered some wise counsel for Mr. Obama for the years ahead.  We also have some suggestions for both Ms. Jewell and President Obama:

  • Finish the Moab master leasing plan (MLP) and begin others.  The Moab MLP would reverse much of the mischief from the Bush administration’s management plans for the Moab area; that’s where Bush’s 77 leases were situated.  Their ugliest legacy is in oil and gas leasing.  Responsible MLPs would go far in reshaping it.
  • Vigorously defend our federal lands against two threats from the State of Utah.  One is goof-ball legislation to “take back the land” from the federal government (see article on page 12).  The other is the 22 lawsuits the state has filed claiming tens of thousands of phony routes under RS 2477 (see page 13).  If the land grab legislation is mostly breast-beating and posturing, the road suits are a real danger.  Any ruling in the state’s and counties’ favor would grant rights-of-way through not just potential wilderness, but also designated wilderness and national parks.
  • Proclaim a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.  Over 100 members of the outdoor industry (which Sally Jewell knows well) signed a letter to the President in November asking him to act.  Designation under the Antiquities Act would protect the area from mineral development and start a new public planning process to address archaeological protection, recreation, and resilience to climate change.

This is a short list of significant steps.  They could begin the process of undoing the worst the Bush crowd brought to the Utah landscape and lay the foundation for the future.  We are back to the word “vision.”  A responsible long-term vision for America’s public lands can protect their health beyond political boundaries and election cycles, beyond even human lifetimes.  It will give them the best chance to endure, intact, into an uncertain future.

It can also give the people of that future time the chance to know and love these public lands as we do.  But making the vision real will demand two things: leadership and courage.  We remain

—Richard Peterson-Cremer

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, spring 2013 issue)