Update on #NotSoSwell Emery County Legislation

It was an interesting week for the Emery County Public Lands Act. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch and introduced in May of this year, would affect 1.4 million acres of land proposed for wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. The legislation has yet to reach a point where it could receive broad support from the conservation community as it fails to protect critical wilderness landscapes and includes objectionable provisions that would have far-reaching implications for the remarkable public lands in Emery County.

SUWA staff members took journalists on an overflight of Emery County on Wednesday, September 12, 2018. Watch the GoPro video above as our friends at EcoFlight fly over Labyrinth Canyon. Click here to watch the story on Fox13 News.

Wednesday morning we learned there would be a House Natural Resources Committee markup less than 48 hours later, on Friday. This was remarkable in that markups generally happen with significantly more notice. Whether this was an intentional attempt to push the bill through the House without anyone having a chance to review new amended language, or the result of hasty and disorganized lawmaking, is anyone’s guess. Either way, we received new language for the legislation and jumped into gear analyzing the bill and providing information to our congressional champions. While the House committee markup was ultimately cancelled (again, for reasons unbeknownst to us, though some are blaming Hurricane Florence), we’ve had a chance to dig into the issues and continue to have concerns with the legislation.

While at first blush the Emery County bill boasts wilderness and National Recreation Area (NRA) acreages that may seem impressive, a closer analysis of the bill reveals fatally flawed legislation. From what we’ve seen of the new, proposed bill amendment, the legislation:

    • Entirely fails to protect remarkable and critical intact wilderness landscapes as wilderness. This includes large portions of Labyrinth Canyon—including the entire eastern side of the canyon system—and vast portions of the remote Muddy Creek region. As proposed, the bill would designate less wilderness than is currently protected for wilderness character as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) or Natural Areas.
    • Rolls back existing WSA protections to facilitate coal mining in the Book Cliffs.
    • Includes unprecedented giveaways to the State of Utah in the form of recreation and public purpose conveyances. The legislation would hand over control of nearly 10,000 acres of high-value public land to the State of Utah for expansion of Goblin Valley State Park. The State could then charge fees for access and develop new amenities and motorized and non-motorized trail systems.
    • Authorizes a land exchange between the federal government and the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) that fails to identify federal parcels for acquisition, and fails to ensure protection of lands rescinded from Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments and other wilderness-quality lands.
    • Allows the State of Utah to continue its federal court litigation seeking highway rights-of-way through designated wilderness, instead of resolving Revised Statute (R.S.) 2477 issues.

We anticipate a markup of the legislation in the House and Senate sometime later this month. In the meantime, we’ll continue to attempt to improve the bill to a point where it could be supported by SUWA and others working day in and day out to protect the wilderness lands of southern Utah. Absent the changes necessary to make this legislation one that is deserving of the landscapes it will impact, we will work tirelessly to ensure that the bill does not pass into law.