San Rafael Swell: The Next Conservation Opportunity

As you know, SUWA works day in and day out to protect Utah’s magnificent wild lands.

From our lawsuits challenging President Trump’s illegal reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to our campaign to stop the BLM from chaining our public lands and fragmenting wilderness with oil and gas drilling—the effort to protect Utah wilderness never ends and is fought on many fronts.

That’s why I wanted to let you know about the next big opportunity we have—to protect the San Rafael Swell and other wilderness areas in Emery County, in the central part of Utah.

You’ll recall that Rep. Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative (PLI) was introduced in the House with much fanfare in 2016. Although it began with good intentions, the final PLI was little more than a one-sided wish list for energy interests and off-road vehicle enthusiasts. Accordingly, it died a quick death in Congress.

Emery County Wilderness Map (Thumbnail)
Click image to view larger map

Out of the ashes of the failed PLI, Utah’s newest representative, John Curtis, and Senator Orrin Hatch have expressed interest in creating a comprehensive lands bill for the Emery County region—which includes the San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon.

We appreciate that Rep. Curtis and Sen. Hatch have committed to work with all sides, including SUWA. After all, these lands belong to all Americans. Only legislation negotiated with conservation interests will succeed.

There are already numerous points of agreement, but a successful bill to protect the San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon must:

  • Not enshrine old, court-overturned travel plans into law. In the wake of a judge overturning the Richfield BLM’s motorized travel plan, an extraordinary agreement was reached between the Trump administration and off-road vehicle and conservation groups that ended litigation in favor of developing new travel plans, including for the San Rafael Swell. Emery County’s current proposal to enshrine the old and defeated travel plan is unacceptable. The State of Utah must also relinquish any RS 2477 claims in areas designated for protection.
  • Focus on front country development, not backcountry fragmentation. Places like Bell and Little Wild Horse Canyons are seeing increased use and crowding. However, it would be a mistake to add new recreational amenities and, in turn, additional use to this remote area, as has been proposed. Any recreation and tourist infrastructure should be built in the front country near local communities such as Green River and the towns along Highway 10.
  • Address scattered state sections. These sections, intended to help fund public schools, are isolated and often economically worthless. Legislation that trades out those sections and consolidates them elsewhere would benefit both education budgets and conservation.
  • Protect the San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon. The western bank of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon falls within Emery County, while the eastern bank is in Grand County. We should not limit our thinking to the arbitrary political boundaries of the county. All of Labyrinth should be addressed.

We’re excited about the opportunity to work with Rep. Curtis and Sen. Hatch to protect the places we all treasure. But it must be a good bill—a bill worthy of the landscape it seeks to protect.

In the coming weeks, we’ll send you more information about the emerging San Rafael Swell bill and the opportunities you’ll have to participate in the process.

Thank you for continuing to be a part of the movement to protect Utah wilderness. We cannot succeed without you.