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Utah public lands effort should include all Americans

Published October 9, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Conservation organizations such as ours are working diligently with the Utah delegation in Rep. Rob Bishop's effort to create legislation that would resolve the unfinished business of wilderness protection in Eastern Utah. We hope to find a compromise worthy of the incredible landscape we have here in Utah.

It is heartening to see the attention being given to this effort. As our groups have participated in the myriad field trips, meetings and conversations to craft a bill, we've been encouraged to see the goodwill and wherewithal among stakeholders to settle these issues.

After decades of advocacy and support from our members, we see the fruits of our labor in this initiative's very existence. In order for it to fulfill its promise, it must address some of the most complex public lands issues out there. It will not be an easy journey, but it's a worthwhile one.

First, we agree with Bishop that the effort must address the issue of RS-2477 claims. The state of Utah filed more than 20 lawsuits seeking rights of way to tens of thousands of routes and two-tracks all across our public lands. Many of these are just faint cowboy trails. By suing to put roads through existing wilderness areas like those designated in Washington County in 2009, or Cedar Mountains in 2006, the finality and certainty promised in those efforts has been upended.

In order for all parties to proceed confidently in this new effort, any new wilderness designations or other federal protections must be exempt from such claims.

Second, more than 300 million Americans are blessed with our nation's singular public lands as a birthright and must be given voice in this process. Whether you hail from Blanding, Bountiful or Boston, these lands are yours — it's one of the most wonderful things about America. To accommodate participation from all, we suggest a series of town halls in the Wasatch Front to complement those in Southern Utah, and later, an input mechanism for all Americans.

Finally, the patchwork of state school trust holdings that peppers our public lands is inefficient, unmanageable, and serves no one— least of all Utah's students.

A sensible exchange swapping remote parcels in pristine wilderness for usable blocks elsewhere behooves us all if done right, but not if it results in the development of dirty, unconventional fuels that further climate change.

Unless and until an agreement is reached, we have no choice but to keep fighting for the Redrock and Forest Service wilderness in all arenas. We will not drop our efforts to protect Greater Canyonlands, improve the management plans issued under the Bush administration, or protect special places like the San Rafael Swell from oil and gas development.

But as we keep all fires lit, know that this effort is on the very front burner.

If we all keep working hard, a good outcome is possible. We commend Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz and their staffs for their demonstrated commitment to what is an incredible challenge. We vow to match that commitment, and look forward to it.

This commentary was submitted by Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust; Bobby McEnaney, senior lands program advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Tim Wagner, of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America Campaign; and Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.