What the election means for redrock wilderness

Elections matter for our public lands. This one broke both ways for the redrock wilderness.

At the top of the ticket, President Obama’s re-election was critical. The White House directs the Department of the Interior which manages the redrock wilderness and more public land than any other bureaucracy in the world. The administration selects the federal judges deciding federal land lawsuits, unilaterally designates national monuments, and vetoes bad legislation.

Yes, it’s a very good thing Mitt Romney lost — he would have been a disaster for western public lands, and Utah in particular. Though we can’t ignore that the Obama administration’s first term was a disappointment for wilderness. For example, who could have imagined this administration would defend in court the Bush administration’s resource management plans which opened up millions of acres of proposed wilderness to drilling and ATVs?

But it is our job to push a vision beyond the limitations of today’s politics, one that excites the national public, at the same time we persist in the day to day struggles before congress, in courtrooms and along dusty roads. With your help, we’ll overcome this administration’s past timidity and protect Greater Canyonlands.

With Democrats holding the Senate, and Republicans the House, expect a dysfunctional Congress to stay broken. We’re in the longest national drought of successful wilderness legislation since the National Wilderness System was created in 1964, and that appears unlikely to change. We can expect ridiculous anti-environment legislation to continue to spew from the House Natural Resources committee, and the Senate, as the grownups in the room, blocking these tantrums.

There have been key player changes. We lost retiring New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman who as chair of the Senate Energy committee long prevented the worst of public lands legislation by upholding basic public lands principles. He’ll likely be replaced by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, and it unclear the extent to which he will follow Bingaman’s precedents. We’re excited that New Mexico elected Senator Martin Heinrich who knows southern Utah and defended America’s redrock wilderness when he served on the House Resources committee. It appears Rep. Doc Hasting will give up being chair of the House Resources committee and may be replaced by incumbent Utah Rep. Rob Bishop. Any name out of a phone book would be better than Hastings. We appreciated a good relationship with Congressman Bishop on the Cedar Mountains wilderness, but his positions — including advocacy of federal land disposal — generally clash with ours.

So wilderness gains are more likely to come through the executive branch than congress, recognizing the public must provide support to embolden the Obama administration on public land issues. The silver lining to a busted congress is it should be easier to kill bad legislation, such as what Emery County has prepared for the San Rafael Swell and Desolation Canyon.

In Utah, overall, things tilted a bit further towards crazy. Utah now has 4 congressional districts and voted in one new representative, Chris Stewart. He will represent Utah’s West Desert and the Grand Staircase. He believes — drum roll please — Utah should seize control of federal lands.

Lone democratic congressional representative Jim Matheson narrowly survived Utah’s republican legislature’s gerrymandering. Jim is a blue dog, and not a Redrock supporter. But he’s stood up against bad wilderness processes in the past.

Senator Orrin Hatch, who first entered the senate nearly two scores ago, won another term by pandering his soul to the tea party as a born again sage brush rebel. He’s joined by Senator Lee, who believes federal lands are unconstitutional. Utah’s new top lawyer, Attorney General John Swallow vociferously campaigned to “take back” Utah’s lands, even though of course these were never Utah’s. Governor Herbert cruised to re-election, as his war on public lands was never much of an issue in the race.

So Governor Herbert’s war on Utah’s public lands will now be aided by an enthusiastic Attorney General, and likely have more support from Utah’s congressional delegation. Which means we’ll spend considerable time in federal court this year, fighting to stop Herbert’s land grab – all twenty two lawsuits worth- and continuing our legal challenges against the Bush Resource Management Plans.

On the bright side, the land grab craziness stays confined to Utah. Arizona voters knocked down a proposition to take over federal lands 2:1.

This political environment might discourage a wilderness advocate: but it shouldn’t. We know we’ll face tough political challenges all the way to protecting the 9 million acres of the Redrock landscape – as we always have. And we’ll continue to incrementally increase the amount of land protection despite our opponent’s upper hand politically here in Utah.

All this said, election results can be unpredictable. I recall the absolute hopelessness we felt in 1994, when political upheaval opened the door for the Utah delegation to try to ram through the worst wilderness bill ever (leading one SUWA board member to recommend “equal amounts of despair and alcohol”). But with a national grassroots uprising we slammed that door shut and instead won the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument thanks to the overreaching of Senators Hatch and Bob Bennett. And of course there was our euphoria after Obama was first elected in 2008, and the disappointment for wilderness advocates that followed (though now we have a second bite at the apple of hope).

Politicians come and go, but our collective passion to defend and protect the redrock as a national treasure endures. Our citizen action is an unstoppable force. The election is over, now let’s get to work.