Wharton: Utahns criticize the same government that helps them

Published October 18, 2011 11:20 am
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The distant sound of sandhill cranes greeted those who came to see the refurbished quarry building open at Dinosaur National Monument recently. The bleachers set up for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's speech looked down on the Green River, creating an idyllic photo opportunity.

Irony, much of it unspoken, played a big role in a ceremony held in one of the most conservative places in Utah.

On my short trip to the Uinta Basin, more than one person mentioned the unpopularity of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who had been at the site a few days before the quarry was opened to the public.

I saw a homemade sticker on the window of a pickup truck with Colorado plates that read: "Don't blame me. I voted for the American." In Roosevelt, a sign on a business along U.S. 40 read something like: "Please. No more wilderness."

The perception here is that the Obama administration in general and Salazar in particular are limiting the ability of Basin residents to drill for oil and natural gas on nearby public lands. Yet, in the first three years of the Bush administration, Utah Division of Oil and Gas figures show drilling commenced on 1,550 wells in the state. During the same time frame in the Obama administration, drilling started on 2,209 Utah wells.

The week before Salazar visited Dinosaur, the Utah Department of Natural Resources issued a news release bragging that for the first time in the state's history, there are more than 10,000 producing oil and gas wells in the state.

Utah's Republican establishment has railed against Obama's stimulus act as a waste of money. Yet, here were Herbert and much of Vernal's establishment celebrating the opening of a new visitor center and the reopening of the world-famous quarry building that were both built, $4 million under budget, with those dollars. That not only created immediate employment, but will benefit the Basin tourist economy for years to come.

In a recent letter to the editor, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah advocated doing away with the Antiquities Act, which they said allowed faceless bureaucrats to set aside large tracts of land as national monuments. Interesting letter, given the fact that only the president of the United States has the power to create a national monument. Since Bishop is a former high school history teacher, that's a detail you'd think he might know.

To his credit, Herbert mentioned that, 96 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson protected the site where the quarry now stands by using that very same Antiquities Act to create Dinosaur National Monument. In fact, presidents have used that power to create most of Utah's national parks, many of which began as monuments.

The governor made some interesting points in his talk at the quarry opening. He said that the beauty of this spot, the preservation of the dinosaur bones and the oil and gas developments nearby and out of sight offered proof that it is possible to both preserve Utah's scenic vistas and utilize its resources.

The devil, of course, is in the details. An outdoor enthusiast, hunter and environmentalist may have an entirely different definition of balancing resource development with protection than an oil company executive or a Uinta Basin worker who relies on energy extraction for a good job.

I believe we can have both, but it will require careful planning, regulations requiring the restoration of public lands when the wells are played out and hard, on-the-ground work to protect the scenic vistas such as the one that opened up behind Herbert as he gave his talk as well as important wildlife habitat and, yes, some wilderness.

Such planning won't come easily in a political climate where both parties seem more inclined to score political points than solve problems and in a state where federal regulations and even land ownership itself are viewed as an industry-killing form of socialism. It's also not easy when many environmentalists don't recognize the need to develop any oil and gas resources on public land or the important role that development plays in Utah's economy.

Tom Wharton is an outdoors and travel columnist. Reach him at wharton@sltrib.com or 257-8909.



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