In 2019, the Emery County Public Land Management Act designated 663,000 acres of Utah’s San Rafael Swell and Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons as wilderness. That designation is meant to protect these places forever from the blight of mining, oil and gas development, and off-road vehicles.

But resource extraction and motors aren’t the only threats to wilderness. The many values wilderness provides, such as opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation and the presence of rare natural and cultural resources, must be actively guarded. Protection of these things calls for careful, informed management.

We recently submitted extensive comments opposing the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposal to more than double the number of commercial recreation permits and increase group size limits for these newly designated wilderness areas. That proposal would allow up to 25 people per commercial guided group in popular and already overcrowded areas such as Little Wildhorse Canyon in the San Rafael Reef. We visited this canyon recently and cannot imagine encountering a group of 25 people there. This would not only seriously diminish the wilderness experience but would pose significant safety risks in narrow slot canyons.

While the Wilderness Act prohibits commercial use in wilderness areas—including commercial recreation such as guided hiking, climbing, hunting, and backpacking trips—a narrow exception exists “to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas.” But the need to accommodate recreation does not override the bedrock requirement to preserve wilderness qualities such as naturalness and solitude.

To determine whether increased commercial recreation use in these newly designated wilderness areas is necessary and appropriate, and to what extent, the BLM must first complete wilderness management plans to gain a comprehensive, landscape-level picture of all pertinent issues and management considerations, and to the extent it is knowable, what the future may hold. No such plan exists.

As our recently released recreation report shows, recreational use is straining the BLM’s management and enforcement capabilities, posing safety issues and causing damage to natural and cultural resources. Accordingly, SUWA will continue to push the BLM to embrace management strategies that protect sensitive wilderness values before they are overwhelmed by burgeoning recreational use.

—Judi Brawer

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Autumn/Winter 2021 issue)