Scott Groene: Red Rock Wilderness Act Drives Utah’s Wilderness Debate

This op-ed by SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene was published in the online version of the Salt Lake Tribune on February 13, 2020.

With the reintroduction of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in Congress last week, it’s worth reflecting on how far wilderness has come in Utah.

Over the past 15 years, more than one million acres of public land in Utah have been protected as wilderness. And through land exchanges, litigation and management plans, hundreds of thousands of additional acres of redrock canyons and mesas have gained some form of protection.

During that same time, Utah politicians from top to bottom have spent millions of taxpayer dollars trying to prevent conservation and seize control of these lands from the public.

How has so much been protected in a state so openly hostile to conservation? The answer is America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.

Over 30 years ago, Utahns recognized that over half of the wilderness in their state had been lost and decided they needed to act to protect the remaining canyon country. No one else would do it — not the politicians blinded by the past, nor federal agencies afraid to act. So volunteers spent years surveying the lands, and, with the leadership of Utah Rep. Wayne Owens, created America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (ARRWA) — legislation that today would protect 8.4 million acres of wilderness on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

With this vision, Utahns set out to defend and protect these lands. The national support they organized translated into the political strength necessary to block the Utah delegation from enacting shortsighted legislation that would have sliced the redrock country to bits. And it gave Utahns the power to prevent administrations from tearing the backcountry apart with energy development, clear cuts and off-road vehicle routes. The ubiquitous yellow “Protect Wild Utah” signs are the tip of an iceberg of a great citizens’ movement.

The latest fruit of these labors was the Emery County Public Land Management Act. What started as a political fight when Rep. John Curtis and former Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced terrible legislation for the San Rafael Swell ended up as a classic win-win scenario. Through hard work and difficult conversations, Republican Hatch and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin hammered out a deal to designate 663,000 acres of wilderness, ensuring that uniquely Utah landscapes like Muddy Creek, Labyrinth Canyon and the San Rafael Swell will be left undisturbed for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

The people of Emery County succeeded in determining their own future, avoiding designation of a national monument other than the one they wanted: Jurassic National Monument. It was a significant accomplishment all around, though ultimately the bill designated less than half of the acres proposed for wilderness in the county.

Getting less than half of what we at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) know deserves protection was only acceptable because, as part of the bargain, Hatch and Durbin agreed that SUWA could continue to advocate for wilderness protection of the remaining undesignated lands through the landmark ARRWA legislation. That’s worth restating: SUWA’s ability to continue advocating for additional wilderness in Emery County was an explicit part of the deal.

Durbin and SUWA offered not to pursue additional wilderness in Emery County in return for more wilderness in the San Rafael Badlands, but Hatch’s office declined the offer. After Hatch’s retirement, Durbin met with Sen. Mitt Romney and made the same proposal. Romney, likewise, declined it.

Our members know SUWA wouldn’t walk away from hundreds of thousands of acres of redrock wilderness in exchange for nothing. Durbin’s insistence on doing what is right for the land is what got the protections added for Muddy Creek and Labyrinth Canyon in the first place.

Unfortunately, some of Utah’s politicians are attempting to rewrite history — ignoring the way the Emery County negotiations happened and pulling out their tired old playbook to attack ARRWA when it was recently introduced. Romney even went so far as to introduce his own wilderness bill in Illinois as a ploy to get back at Durbin, an absurd tactic considering Durbin enthusiastically supports wilderness. These theatrics are typical of our delegation whenever ARRWA is reintroduced in Congress, but they only serve to emphasize the bill’s power and importance.

As Utah’s population grows, protected lands become more precious. We need these places more than ever to hold carbon in the ground, to protect Native American homelands, to shelter stressed wildlife and, ultimately, for our own well-being. We’re always ready to roll up our sleeves and engage on tough public lands issues, and we look forward to the next opportunity.