Utah is awash with politicians hostile to our nation’s long history of conservation and shared public lands. There are two ways to view civic leadership in the state: a cup barely half full or one bone dry.
For all of that, wilderness protection has come a fair way over the past 30 years. With our members and friends, SUWA has successfully defended nearly 10 million acres of redrock landscape for three decades. And we’ve gained some form of protection for almost 5.5 million acres of the same canyon country—more than the original redrock wilderness bill sought to protect.
From about 1930 to 1980, wilderness vanished from nearly 14 million of Utah’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acres. The greatest single loss was the drowning of Glen Canyon, but extensive river and canyon landscapes were whittled and fragmented elsewhere as well.
In the 30 years since, for the over 9 million acres that remain wild, we’ve stopped this horrendous rate of loss. Far less than 1 percent of our wilderness proposal has been damaged in this time, despite two oil and gas booms, a pair of Bush administrations, and the explosive rise in off-road vehicle use.
Cross-Country ORV Use Curtailed
Millions of acres have gained some form of protection through two wilderness bills, three land exchange bills, a national monument proclamation, and countless agency planning decisions. Once, our wilderness proposal was wide open to off-road vehicles. Dirt bikers could head off cross-country and legally create a new trail anywhere their knobby tires could carry them. Now, almost our entire proposal is closed to this abuse and the fight has moved to another front: the hundreds of routes the BLM has designated in these areas.
In 1989, when Utah Congressman Wayne Owens introduced legislation to protect 5.1 million acres of Utah BLM wilderness, it was a quixotic quest. Today, in many ways, we’ve surpassed Wayne’s goal. Congress has enacted two Utah wilderness bills in the past six years, both with the full support of the Utah congressional delegation. Both protected more wilderness than Wayne’s original proposal sought for those areas.
Back then, 80 percent of Utahns who’d made up their minds opposed that much wilderness. Now, 60 percent of decided Utahns support 9 million acres or more of Utah BLM wilderness.
None of this came easily. With our conservation partners and congressional champions, we killed 13 bad bills introduced by Utah’s congressional delegation, each of which would have harmed the redrock. We’ve marched to federal and state court dozens of times, and filed hundreds of administrative appeals to stop drilling, chaining, off-road vehicles, dams, road construction, and mining. We’ve traveled the nation building support. In the last five years alone we’ve spoken to nearly 13,000 people at 391 public gatherings. Time and time again we’ve brought extraordinary citizens from across the country to Washington, DC to give a voice to the redrock.
Back in Utah, field staff traveled the desert to first create and then shepherd the best-documented wilderness proposal ever. We’ve endured insults and death threats. And we’ve embraced Ed Abbey’s advice to “outlive the bastards.” Dozens of opposing senators, governors, administrations and representatives have come and gone.
Nearly 30 years of relentless advocacy for the vision of protecting the redrock on a landscape scale has prevented loss and put meaningful protections in place. If thousands of people had not spoken up, the canyon country would be much diminished. There would be trinket shops on Cedar Mesa, coal trucks rumbling across the Kaiparowits Plateau, and missiles fired from near the town of Green River. A great citizens’ movement has prevented a thousand wounds to the land. Together, we’ve protected real places like the Cedar Mountains, Muddy Creek, Beaver Dam Narrows and Salt Creek Canyon.
Many years ago, working among geologists to measure beaches in the Grand Canyon (I even got paid), I heard the comment “if you want to see geologic processes, just look: it’s happening right now.” The same is true with the steady progress for Utah wilderness. In court rooms, agency offices, congressional corridors, and along dusty dirt roads our work continues. And though the pace often seems geologic, conservation gains continue to mount.
The article that follows offers several very good examples of this. It details the progress we’ve made for Desolation Canyon, the Price River, and White River, each threatened by a surge in natural gas exploration.
The threats from climate change, rampant ORV use, and the lack of a sound national energy policy are real. But with your help we’ll keep pushing and pushing until the redrock is designated wilderness. We still have far to go, but we’ve come far as well.
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Summer 2012 issue)