Gehrke: It took decades, but the Emery County bill could be a model for settling Utah’s intractable public lands wars

Robert Gehrke

Two years ago I had the opportunity to float the “Mighty Muddy,” or, as the trip came to be known, “Muddy Murder.”

Muddy Creek cuts a meandering path through the San Rafael Swell and only has enough water to raft for a few weeks a year, and that’s in a good year.

It was sheer misery. I skippered a two-man raft carrying my two dogs, one deathly afraid of water and wanting nothing more than to abandon ship. Not that there was a lot of water to be afraid of, and I ended up dragging the boat for a good chunk of the trip.

I’d show you pictures, but on the one legitimate rapid, I flipped the raft and it turns out the dry bag wasn’t quite dry enough to keep my phone from being destroyed.

So you’ll have to take my word that the scenery was incredible, with towering cliffs, narrow slot canyons and rolling redrock bluffs.

Perhaps even more incredible than that scene is that last week Congress actually passed a bill.

And more incredible still is that the legislation they passed managed to unite Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and John Curtis, Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah legislators and rural county commissioners along with their natural nemesis, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to support a breakthrough compromise on the management of public lands in Emery County — including protection for the “Mighty Muddy.”

It wasn’t easy. Emery County Commission Chairman Lynn Sitterud said his predecessors worked for 24 years in the tug-of-war over the package.

Where they ended up is groundbreaking.

The legislation will ultimately protect some 700,000 acres of wilderness in the San Rafael Swell, including popular areas like Desolation Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon along the Green River.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Towering layers of sandstone cut by water and time near the Wedge in the San Rafael Swell in Emery County. Emery County voters will vote this November on a ballot inititiative on the idea of turning the huge area into a national monument.

It creates a new 217,000-acre recreation area in the San Rafael Swell, open to the public but not threatened by mining and mineral development. It will add 6,200 acres to the wildly popular Goblin Valley State Park.

And this deal can help schoolchildren in Utah too. Here’s how: it empowers the School and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA) to swap about 115,000 acres of scattered parcels trapped in the San Rafael Swell for 90,000 acres of targeted piece of property, land that is already sought after for a half-dozen solar energy projects in Emery, Beaver and Millard counties; two parcels it wants for coal mining; other lands around the state with hardrock minerals, oil and gas; and some sections near Deer Valley with residential development potential.

The proceeds from those projects will go into the state’s school and trust lands account, most of it used to benefit Utah’s students.

“I think this is the product of a lot of input and maybe it doesn’t represent what any one party or constituent would feel is the absolute ideal, but it got to a place where everyone could say, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea,’” SITLA general counsel Mark Johnson told me Friday.

There have been similar efforts before: In 2006, Bishop passed legislation protecting wilderness in the Cedar Mountains. Three years later, Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Jim Matheson passed legislation resolving a number of land issues in Washington County. But those bills didn’t have the same sort of breadth and scope as the Emery County bill.

Sitterud said that he still has some reservations about parts of the bill. “But when I became a commissioner, I wanted to do what’s best for the county, not what’s best for me,” he said. It’s supported by most of the constituents and groups in his county, so he backs it, too.

Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA, said it took work. There were many iterations, and each one got better and better.

When Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative — an attempt to bundle lands bills together — blew up, it almost took Emery County’s bill with it. But Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch stuck with it. Hatch and his staff made one last push to get it passed before Hatch left office last year, making a deal with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin to get it to the floor, only to have it fall apart when Sen. Mike Lee blocked it.

The final bipartisan passage last week as part of sweeping legislation that includes a bundle of Utah-focused lands bills is a credit to the parties tenacious enough not to give up and flexible enough to compromise.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves,” Groene said. “These will always be challenging, but we hope that, given the historic significance and magnitude of the bill, it will open the door to protect more land in the future.”

And now that we’ve seen how it can work, maybe more counties will follow the Emery County model — although maybe a little more expeditiously.

“I don’t know how many other counties will want to go through a 20-year process,” Sitterud told me. “But you could look at it as a roadmap for how you get it done.”