Utah’s wilderness soap opera – our take

We’d like to clarify matters after reading an op-ed by Governor Herbert’s spokesperson which included some strikingly rosy comments about the success of “county by county” wilderness proposals.  The governor was responding to criticism from outdoor industry leaders that his anti-wilderness activism threatens a significant piece of Utah’s economy.  We’ve been extremely disappointed by the governor’s false and unsupported claims that implementation of Secretary Salazar’s “wild lands policy” would harm rural economies.  Utah citizens – and the wilderness debate – deserve better.

Our governor and certain members of our congressional delegation, particularly Senator Hatch and Representative Bishop, have led a forceful charge against protecting Utah’s public lands.    So far they have done no permanent damage—in fact, just two weeks ago, a federal court shot down the governor’s effort to rip open an ORV route up Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park (although Utah citizens will still pay the legal bill for that failure).  But there are still many fights ahead.

Interestingly, most of our politicians now also say they value wilderness.  The paradox can be explained by their need to satisfy two constituencies: the tea party rabble that Hatch and Herbert will face at the convention and the majority of Utahns who support wilderness.

In the op-ed, the governor’s office championed eliminating the Department of Interior’s longstanding legal authority to protect wild lands, and suggested that the issue of protecting nearly-10 million acres of Utah BLM wilderness could be addressed through county wilderness bills instead.  The facts do not support this argument.

The specifics of what is happening are as follows:

Emery County- Here, we participated in discussions for two years.  But when ORV advocates successfully pressured the county commissioners into reneging on a deal to split the cost of a facilitator with us, it was obvious little good would happen, and we left.  A local group in Emery County has since created a proposal that is worse than the Bush management plans that we, the Wilderness Society and others are challenging in court.  We expect nothing will happen here.

Wayne County:  The county is sometimes mentioned as one where there is interest in a wilderness bill, but we are not aware of any public discussions taking place.

Piute County: We are part of discussions that are underway in Piute. This area is unique in both the relatively small amount of BLM wilderness land involved and the lack of conflicts between current uses and proposed wilderness (there are approximately 25K acres of proposed BLM wilderness).   The national forest lands are more significant and include the Tushar and Monroe Mountains (our friends at Grand Canyon Trust and Utah Environmental Congress are the lead advocates on forest issues).   We think agreement on wilderness should be possible here and we are ready to work hard with others to see that it happens.  But at best, this process would address far less than 1 percent of the total Redrock wilderness proposal.  We appreciate the work the commissioners have put into their proposal to this point and look forward to continuing refinements to it.

San Juan County: There is no public process underway of which we are aware.  The governor’s office declared there was an imminent “million acre” proposal.  If this is true, it’s the tainted fruit of some backroom deal—andwe’ve blocked over a dozen of these types of deals in the past.  We suspect the governor is really just repeating old gossip that predates the last election in San Juan County.

If it were true, would a “million acres” in San Juan county be a good thing?  To answer that question, we’d first need to see a map, and we are not aware that one exists.  Acreage alone is meaningless.  But for reference, San Juan County contains approximately 1.5 million acres of proposed BLM wilderness.  So the figure is smallish to begin with, even assuming it would all be BLM wilderness and not fragmented by a less-meaningful National Park wilderness proposal, for example.

We’d also check to see if it was riddled with cherry stems, which are off-road vehicle routes with wilderness on either side—but which fragment an area.   Politicians can create an impressive sounding acreage of wilderness with one hand, but then take it away with the other by inserting cherry stems that don’t affect the acreage but destroy the wilderness.

And with any wilderness bill, we’d consider whether it goes well beyond the lands already protected as Wilderness Study Areas.  The WSAs were supposed to cover all of the BLM lands that qualified, but in Utah the original surveys were deeply flawed and excluded almost two-thirds of the qualifying lands.

We’d also ask whether such a bill improves on the half-baked and uniformly dreadful Utah BLM land use plans released in the last days of the Bush administration.  These plans designated 20,000 miles of ORV trails with no real analysis of their unavoidable consequences–soil erosion, water pollution, and lost native plant and animal life.   For any bill to succeed, it has to improve dramatically on these plans, or the Redrock wilderness is better served by continuing the fight to improve the plans in court.

The governor— as well as other Utah politicians— has suggested the 2009 Washington County wilderness bill was a collaborative process that can be use as a model. In reality, it was not, and it should not.  We killed the first Washington County bill Senator Bennett introduced in 2006 because it failed to adequately protect wilderness.  In the next congress Bennett tried to enact a new and different bill over the objections of Senate Energy Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman and Redrock senate champions.  Bennett wrongly believed Majority Leader Harry Reid would help him roll these Democrats.  When Bennett’s gambit failed, he improved his legislation and forced the local county commissioners to accept concessions they’d never imagined, in order find success.  He’s been slamming SUWA ever since, because he knows well the role we played in this political fight.  Still, we credit him for both his perseverance and willingness to confront the county commissioners.  Both were needed to succeed.

Because the Washington County legislation was the result of a congressional fight, there has been no resolution there and we continue to push to protect areas omitted from the legislation.    We ended our opposition to the legislation when it was improved so as to be a step forward for wilderness.  However, there was never any agreement between us and Bennett or the commissioners that we’d end efforts to protect areas like Square Top or the canyons at the south end of Canaan Mountain.  And we have not.

The Washington County legislation took over 5 years, addressed less than 2 percent of the Redrock wilderness, and didn’t bring resolution.  It’s time to recognize this is not a helpful model.

The most important conservation victories in Utah have been controversial. A review of the history of Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National parks, as well as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shows that when all first gained administrative protection, Utah’s politicians ranted that economic disaster would follow.  And now, pretty much everyone agrees these were good ideas.  This is the history of conservation in the West, and there is no reason for it to end.

That said, we are willing to engage in wilderness discussions for smaller regions.  But, as the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized today, these discussions will succeed only if the Utah delegation and governor represent all Utahns, not just a handful of county commissioners (Rep. Matheson deserves credit for trying to include all interests in these discussions), and they recognize the national importance of these places as well.