Which Americans Get a Say in the Fate of Public Lands in Utah?

Looking through my colleagues’ photos and videos taken at last Saturday’s “Take Back Utah” rally, I became confused. For years, one of the main arguments against America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act – the Utah Wilderness Coalition’s flagship BLM wilderness bill – has been that since 1993 the legislation has been sponsored and supported by members of Congress outside of Utah. Ongoing battles rage between Utah counties and the federal government over ownership of roads and off-road vehicle routes on public land. From the rhetoric surrounding the rally, I figured all participants would be Utahns who believed the state should take control of federal lands –like the far-fetched eminent domain bill that recently passed the Utah Legislature.

Instead, I was surprised to see vehicles from states such as Tennessee and Montana, and astonished to hear Utah State Rep. Mike Noel paying tribute to participants from Elko County, Nevada.

On the Take Back Utah website, I saw a main sponsor was the Idaho-based Blue Ribbon Coalition. Even the credo of Take Back Utah “defends the freedoms of all Americans to explore and experience America’s Wild Places.” If you look at the Facebook group “Utahns Against the Red Rock Wilderness Act,” you would see many members from states outside of Utah – if the group is concerned with the state’s and locals’ rights to the land, why would they welcome “outsiders”? SUWA has always espoused the fact that people throughout the country should have a say in how our public lands are managed – hence, America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. From the above examples, you would think that the elected officials and others who organized and participated in the rally believe the same.

But members of the Utah delegation, led by Sen. Bob Bennett, advocate for the “county-by-county” process of designating wilderness, which puts local county commissioners in charge of crafting bills to manage federal lands owned in equal part by every citizen of the United States. One county pushing such a bill is San Juan, which encompasses 5 million acres, including 1.3 million acres of gorgeous redrock BLM lands proposed for wilderness. County Commissioner Bruce Adams said the county’s proposal “favors opening up the area to everyone, including off-road vehicles, by creating a system of access roads” – not protecting some of the most intact wilderness-quality lands in the lower 48. In my work, I meet Americans from all over the country who want these lands protected, but this method of crafting so-called wilderness bills leaves them and Utahns from other parts of the state without a real voice. In San Juan County, Sen. Bennett wants to give three officials elected by a population of 15,000 (my neighborhood in Arlington, VA alone has a population of over 10,000!) control of creating legislation for lands owned and loved by millions of Americans. It just doesn’t seem right.

Back on the Take Back Utah webpage, I find some conflicting language: apparently the rally is also for “securing local rights” to the land or the “west will become unfairly subservient to the east.” Watching video from the event, I hear speakers denounce SUWA’s east coast supporters (wilderness designation also has ample support within Utah, by the way), Noel encourages locals to build illegal roads on public lands, and I see Governor Herbert promote the county commissioner method of crafting wilderness bills— a process that disenfranchises those who love the redrock but happen to live in other parts of the country.

Which is it? Are Americans outside Utah only allowed to be heard if they agree with the riding-roughshod-all-over-the-place method of managing our public lands?

Do you think this should be the case?