We’ve Come a Long Way Together:
Highlights from the Past Four Decades of Redrock Advocacy
(From the summer 2023 issue of Redrock Wilderness)
Public lands protection has never been easy in Utah. It was especially hard in the early 1980s.
James Watt, the embodiment of anti-environmental extremism, was Interior Secretary. Though he resigned in 1983, his philosophy lingered over the department as it completed some of the last wilderness inventories on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, including in Utah.
Then there was the internecine skirmishing about a bill to protect wilderness on Utah’s national forests. One environmental group broke ranks and gave the federal delegation the fig leaf it needed to pass what many activists considered to be a wildly inadequate bill.
From that experience emerged a corps of disappointed but resolute redrock defenders. Most were quite adamant about a couple of things: (1) Utah politicians would never again be sole arbiters of the fate of Utah’s wild country, and (2) Utah conservationists, politically outgunned at home, could not afford to speak with less than a unified voice.
That was the atmosphere into which SUWA was born, followed shortly by creation of the Utah Wilderness Coalition, our longtime partner. SUWA’s mission was, and remains today, protection of Utah’s BLM wilderness. How much wilderness, exactly? Brant Calkin, former SUWA executive director, answered that question simply: “All that’s left.”
The questions of how much wilderness was left, and where, were the focus of the original “citizens’ inventory.” In response to the BLM’s meager, hastily prepared, and deeply flawed Utah wilderness proposal (released in 1980), volunteers spent thousands of hours in the field carefully documenting wilderness characteristics and mapping boundaries of proposed wilderness areas. America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, the embodiment of this grassroots effort, was first introduced in Congress by Representative Wayne Owens (D-UT) in 1989, and has been introduced in every Congress since. With continuing fieldwork, the original 5.7 million-acre proposal now stands at more than 8 million.
A decade or so after SUWA was formed, Representative James Hansen (R-UT), then chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands, went to St. Paul, MN, for a hearing regarding Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. At issue was a bill to gut those wonders by giving county commissioners management control.
As Hansen gaveled the hearing to order, wilderness lovers in the balcony unfurled a large, bright yellow banner touting protection of 5.7 million acres of Utah wilderness. Hansen was astonished. The delegation was put on notice: Utah wilderness had garnered national attention and could no longer be considered a parochial issue.
In this 40th anniversary edition of Redrock Wilderness, we’ve invited six former members of SUWA’s staff and board to share a highlight from their time at the organization—each a potent reminder of our combined strength as advocates, and a testament to just how far we’ve come together.
You and other SUWA members have made these successes possible. We are where we are only because of your trust, your generosity, and your dedication. Thank you!
—Darrell Knuffke, newsletter editor and former board chair
Utah Wilderness Makes National Headlines as Activists Take On the State Delegation . . . and Win
Brant Calkin and Susan Tixier were gifted political prognosticators. These early SUWA leaders had the uncanny ability to “look way down the road” when it came to developing a plan to defend and protect southern Utah’s magnificent wild lands. Looking back on the turbulent 1990s, it’s clear that they had a successful three-prong conservation strategy.
Prong One: Nationalize the issue. Brant and Susan recognized the need for SUWA to have a full-time presence in Washington, DC, in order to raise the profile of our cause. I’m very proud to say I was SUWA’s first Washington representative and DC office employee in 1990. Over the next five years, more staff joined the team, interns rotated out every month, and Utah-based staff would often get the dreaded call to spend weeks in the DC swamp. During those awful humid summer months, Scott Groene (one of the exiles) mastered the challenge of navigating every building on Capitol Hill without ever going outside.
Prong Two: It takes a village. Demonstrating strong national support for America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act was (and still is) crucial to protecting canyon country. The Utah Wilderness Coalition hired organizer extraordinaire Liz McCoy, who partnered with SUWA’s national grassroots coordinator Tom Price to mount an innovative cosponsor campaign that included Wilderness Week events in DC and intensive training camps for “wilderness warriors” from across the country. Their work produced record congressional support for the Red Rock bill.
Prong Three: Endless pressure, endlessly applied. In 1995, the Utah congressional delegation declared war on Utah wilderness with the introduction of a ludicrously inadequate statewide bill containing “hard release” language for millions of acres—meaning undesignated lands would no longer be eligible for wilderness designation.
SUWA and our partners sprang into action. Brant Calkin, then serving as national outreach coordinator, hit the road with a traveling slideshow. SUWA Issues Director Ken Rait and board member Jim Baca generated more editorials than there were newspapers. Volunteers and staff did daily “Hill drops” to congressional offices—distributing educational materials, 8×10 glossy photographs, and a chapbook of eloquent essays edited by authors Stephen Trimble and Terry Tempest Williams. Back in Utah, hearings were packed with wilderness advocates wearing “Wild Utah” buttons and chanting “5.7!” There was so much opposition to the delegation’s proposal that the House bill was never even brought to the floor for a vote.
But the Utah delegation did not give up. In early 1996 they attached an anti-wilderness provision to the very popular “Omnibus Parks and Recreation Act.” Now the heavy hitters spoke out in defense of Utah wilderness, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and General Brent Scowcroft (originally from Ogden, UT), who urged the Senate to “look beyond today.”
And then there was Robert Redford’s faceoff with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in the newspaper magazine USA Weekend. Polling showed that readers agreed 9-1 with Mr. Redford that Utah’s wilderness should be protected. But the champion of Utah wilderness champions was Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ), who successfully mounted a Senate filibuster, at one point saying “[W]hat I want to preserve is the possibility for silence and the possibility for time that exists only in a wilderness . . .” Thanks to the extended network of activists in DC and across the nation, the delegation’s bill failed and those possibilities still exist today.
—Cindy Shogan, former Washington representative/director & board member
A Monumental Achievement: Protecting the Kaiparowits and Grand Staircase-Escalante
In 1996, not long after our dramatic defeat of the Utah delegation’s anti-wilderness bill, SUWA celebrated a historic victory in the form of a nearly 2-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Designation of the monument capped nearly a decade of work to prevent coal mining on the Kaiparowits Plateau.
The battle over the Kaiparowits was one that SUWA took on following earlier efforts by Robert Redford and others to beat back large-scale industrialization across this wild region. Through tireless work at the state and federal levels, we fought to stop a massive coal mine proposed by Dutch-owned Andalex Resources.
Those years hardened me as an emerging wilderness advocate. I became the nemesis of Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, the Utah Education Association (which thought coal development would alleviate education funding challenges), and staff at the local BLM office who confused their role as regulators with that of project proponents (among the latter was Mike Noel, who later became a member of the Utah House of Representatives, where he railed endlessly against conservation initiatives.) The cards were stacked against us, but fierce advocacy by the SUWA team—including Mark MacAllister, Amy O’Connor, Mike Matz, and star attorney Heidi McIntosh—helped lay the groundwork for that historic September day in 1996 when the monument became a reality.
I was fortunate to be present on that crisp, early fall day when President Bill Clinton signed the proclamation, accompanied by my wife, newborn daughter, my mother, brothers, and a nephew. Listening to the president, vice president, and others extol the virtues of this incredible area was a transcendent experience etched in my memory.
Local reaction to the monument was typical Chicken Little rhetoric that the sky would fall. In reality, the nearby communities of Kanab, Escalante, and Boulder thrived with solid economic growth. Meanwhile, Utah’s schoolchildren were well served by a bill that consolidated BLM holdings within the monument and traded out the checkerboard of state trust land sections for developable assets elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the anti-monument torch passed from that mid-1990s congressional delegation to the current crop of legislators, which led to President Donald Trump’s insidious effort to eviscerate the monument. Thankfully, that unlawful action was reversed.
Today, the re-established monument is renowned for its dizzying vistas, paleontological wonders, and rare silence. From the Waterpocket Fold, west through the canyons of the Escalante, across the vast Kaiparowits, and down through the Grand Staircase, the protections we achieved together will endure for all time.
—Ken Rait, former issues director
From Opportunity to Triumph: Utah’s Cedar Mountain Wilderness
President George W. Bush signed the Cedar Mountain Wilderness legislation into law in January 2006 after its bumpy four-year ride through Congress. It was the first Utah-specific federal wilderness designation in 22 years and quadrupled the amount of designated BLM wilderness in Utah from 25,120 acres to 100,000 acres. The bill also marked the first time SUWA broke off a chunk of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act to gain immediate and permanent protection for deserving lands.
Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced the bill in the House as a component of his Utah Test and Training Range Act, which was itself folded into the larger National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). For Bishop—no great friend of wilderness—protecting the Cedars was a useful means of addressing the military’s concerns while at the same time blocking a controversial nuclear waste transportation route. But even with the support of the entire Utah delegation, the bill’s passage was far from guaranteed. Many members of the Senate opposed the legislation precisely because of its anti-nuclear waste implications.
The Senate version of the NDAA omitted Bishop’s Cedar Mountain legislation, leading to a nerve-racking process to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills. Proponents, including key SUWA activists in Virginia, Michigan, and Nevada, immediately mobilized. Their efforts paid off and the Cedar Mountain Wilderness bill ultimately became law, demonstrating that even in tough political times we can make progress on wilderness designation.
The Cedar range may lack the fame of Utah’s redrock country, but its grassy slopes and rugged limestone outcrops provide important wildlife habitat and offer an accessible oasis of solitude for northern Utah’s urban communities. Rising to 7,700 feet above the Great Salt Lake Desert, just 40 miles west of Salt Lake City, this wilderness area is part of Utah’s lonely and expansive Basin and Range province, an undulating succession of peaks and valleys rolling west toward the Nevada border. The mountains, thrust skyward from block faulting, were once literal islands surrounded by the waters of ancient Lake Bonneville, an inland sea which covered much of western Utah over 14,000 years ago.
Wilderness designation has kept the Cedar range a lovely and serene place, free from the encroachment of off-road vehicles and industrial development. This conservation victory was made possible by 20-plus years of hard work by SUWA activists around the country who made sure their members of Congress supported the protection of Utah wild lands.
—Liz Thomas, current board member & former field attorney
Setting a Precedent with the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act
With a new, potentially more wilderness-friendly administration at the helm, 2009 was a heady time for public land advocates. But that didn’t mean our work would be easy. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (otherwise known as “Dr. No”) had held up so many public land bills over the previous years that the only way to get anything through Congress was to combine a bunch of popular individual bills into a single “omnibus” package. With enough senators supporting particular provisions of the package, a successful filibuster was less likely. Such was the strategy behind S. 22, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. Tucked into this bill’s 1,000-plus pages was a Utah wilderness bill: the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act.
The Washington County bill had come a long way since Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) and Representative Jim Matheson (D-UT) first introduced their anti-wilderness 2006 version that would have stripped protection from wilderness-quality lands and forced the sale of more than 20,000 acres of federal public land surrounding St. George. After SUWA’s Senate champions, led by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), killed that misbegotten measure, its sponsors tried and failed again to pass a slightly better (but still not good enough) version in 2008.
Ultimately, Senator Durbin, Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) managed to transform the Washington County bill into a landmark piece of legislation that set the standard of “no-net-loss” of protected wilderness study area (WSA) acreage in future Utah wilderness bills. That standard endures, ensuring that existing WSA protection is the floor, not the ceiling, for any Utah wilderness negotiation.
It took another two months of coordinated lobbying by the conservation community to get the omnibus bill over the finish line. I had just started as SUWA’s legislative director after a couple of years of tutelage under colleagues Pete Downing and Justin Allegro. Luckily, we convinced our Moab field advocate, Scott Braden, to join me for a year in the nation’s capital. Together, we embarked upon a massive lobbying and grassroots mobilization blitz.
The effort was well worth it. The final bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March of 2009, designated 140,000 acres of new BLM wilderness in Utah’s Zion-Mojave region, including Canaan Mountain, Black Ridge, and Doc’s Pass. It also added wilderness protection to 125,000 acres within Zion National Park and protected another 50,000 acres of wild country within the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area (prohibiting off-road vehicles, drilling, and mining).
It was a law we could all be proud of, thanks to the fierce commitment of SUWA’s remarkable members and activists.
—Richard Peterson-Cremer, former legislative director
Against the Odds: A Trump-Era Victory for Utah’s San Rafael Swell
By the time I joined SUWA’s staff there was so much lore—a rebellious lore that drew me in. I grew up in Ogden, Utah, loved the redrock landscapes of my home state, and was eager to work in their defense.
During my time in SUWA’s Washington, DC, office, there arose an opportunity to protect Utah’s extraordinary San Rafael Swell. It was a long shot. When Representative John Curtis (R-UT) and then-Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced terrible legislation for this region in 2018, Trump was president and Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress.
Fate intervened in a fashion. Sen. Hatch had aged and his faculties were declining, but his staff had known us for years and understood that we were rational actors who could hammer out a deal in good faith. I went out for beers with them (they were not Utahns) and we built an understanding.
SUWA had plenty of experience defeating bad bills, including six previous proposals for the San Rafael Swell. This time, we were committed to transforming an awful bill into something truly good for Utah’s public lands. Fortunately, redrock champion Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) was up for the challenge too. We gained additional wilderness protections with the help of his staff, who had somehow managed to keep Utah issues on their radar in the midst of national political fights of enormous—even existential—gravity.
SUWA had previously taken Senator Durbin on hikes through the Bears Ears area that we promised would be “short and flat,” though they were often neither. It astounds me to recall that when “House on Fire” described our actual country (rather than just the well-known ancestral site on Cedar Mesa), Senator Durbin still worked to enact the San Rafael Swell legislation and reinstate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.
The Emery County Public Land Management Act became law in March of 2019. All around us chaos reigned. The Trump administration was wreaking havoc on the nation, the environment, the world. By some miracle, 663,000 acres of protected wilderness emerged from that quagmire—including Muddy Creek, Mexican Mountain, the San Rafael Reef, parts of Labyrinth and Desolation Canyons, and other spectacular places. As icing on the cake, the law added 70 miles of river to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
After months of hard work, and plenty of anxiety-inducing twists and turns, there was a happy ending after all—a glimmer of hope in the darkest of times. The San Rafael Swell wilderness bill remains the most significant legislative victory in SUWA’s history.
This is what we accomplished together.
—Jen Ujifusa, former legislative director
Protecting Our Future, Preserving Our Past: America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act Earns Navajo Nation’s Support
Environmental groups like SUWA are often misunderstood by Native people throughout San Juan County, Utah. Many Navajo families, on and off the Reservation, face domestic hardships which lead us to deprioritize working with environmental groups; yet respect for nature is the cornerstone of all Native teachings.
Navajo traditional beliefs are centered around the plants, the trees, the wildlife, the water, the canyons, the mountains, the rocks, and earlier forms of life (Sa aah naaghai Bik eh hozho). During every monsoon season on the Navajo Nation, we hear and feel thunder that brings messages that the future of the earth itself is in peril.
For these reasons, Navajos believe that all of the earth should be protected at all times.
I wish I’d known more about SUWA during the 16 years I served as a San Juan County commissioner. Though I consistently fought to ensure that benefits and services were provided to my constituents on an equal basis with non-Native county residents, I did not realize that my fellow commissioners were making anti-conservation land-use decisions. If I had known more about SUWA’s work at that time, I would have been able to use my position to do more for public lands.
I was happy to join the SUWA board in 2017. I felt it was time for me to try to make an impact on behalf of Utah’s wild places. In particular, I wanted to help educate members of the Navajo Nation about America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. I eventually met with all seven Utah Navajo government chapters, attending numerous meetings across the Utah portion of the Nation, from Navajo Mountain to Mexican Water to Montezuma Creek. It was a long process but, in the end, all the Utah Navajo chapters passed resolutions supporting the Red Rock bill.
I also met with the Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock, AZ, to advocate for the bill. In December 2021, a resolution in support of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act was presented to the Tribal Council. The Council passed the resolution unanimously and the Speaker and the Navajo Nation president both endorsed it.
During the discussions and debates at chapter meetings and before the Tribal Council, it was good to hear the deep knowledge and concern voiced by Navajos along with their support for protecting the archaeological remnants of Pueblo and Navajo culture that are at the heart of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
In beauty we walk. Hozho nahasdlii.
—Mark Maryboy, former board member