Utah public-lands bill that would protect 1 million acres, establish a Jurassic National Monument is drawing fire from conservation groups

A new land bill introduced in Congress Wednesday seeks to set aside more than a half-million acres of wilderness in Utah’s Emery County.

Backed by Utah Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Emery County Public Land Management Act would also create a 4-square-mile national monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and national conservation areas totaling 383,380 acres, mostly around the iconic San Rafael Swell.

Proponents lauded the bill, nearly 20 years in the making, as a locally driven solution to long-standing land-use conflicts, bringing “desired certainty to a broad range of stakeholders.”

Some conservation groups, meanwhile, have denounced it, with one calling the bill a “big step backwards.”

The measure’s Utah sponsors contend it balances outdoor recreation, extractive industries and conservation of extraordinary sandstone landscapes and paleontological resources. Curtis, a Republican whose district includes the scenic part of central Utah, called it “ a win for everybody.”

“It balances the needs of funding for Utah’s schools and conserving some of our nation’s most pristine land and resources,” Curtis said. “I am excited to champion this bill that helps add new resources and economic development opportunities to Emery County, and brings together conservation organizations, motorized and nonmotorized recreation, sportsmen, local officials and governments, the state of Utah, the congressional delegation, and many others.”

Hatch is the measure’s Senate sponsor.

Emery County land bill, at a glance

  • Establishes the 336,467-acre San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining National Conservation Area.

  • Designates nearly 578,000 acres of wilderness.

  • Exchanges nearly 100,000 acres of state trust lands in these conservation districts for federal land elsewhere.

  • Establishes the 2,543-acre Jurassic National Monument at Cleveland-Lloyd.

  • Expands Goblin Valley State Park by 9,350 acres.

  • Provides 640 acres to the town of Emery for a park; 640 acres to the Emery County sheriff for a substation; 1,400 acres for the Huntington Airport; and 65 acres for the information center at Buckhorn Wash.

Some conservation groups applauded the bill, which envisions placing 1 million acres into conservation management. But others pointed to what they see as glaring defects, principally the exclusion of “world-class” wild lands from protection, such as Muddy Creek, Labyrinth Canyon and the Badlands on the northwest fringes of the San Rafael Swell.

“The same politicians who instigated and celebrated the illegal repeal of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments are now trying to claim that their San Rafael bill is a ‘conservation bill,’“ said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA. “In fact, Hatch’s bill represents a big step backwards for wilderness, emphasizing motorized recreation over conservation and leaving more than 900,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands without protection.”

SUWA has already released TV, digital and print advertising that detail its criticisms.

The Emery bill picks up where Rep. Rob Bishop’s unsuccessful multicounty Public Lands Initiative left off, looking to resolve public land fights in a county that holds a wealth of coal and other mineral deposits, dinosaur fossils, wild rivers, wilderness, and areas popular for outdoor recreation, including rock climbing, canyoneering, motor sports and equestrians.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called the legislation “an important bill and is a great example of what can happen when members of a community set aside differences and work to find solutions that will benefit the county, its residents and the state of Utah.”

At a glance, Curtis’ bill does appear to advance strong conservation provisions. But problems lurk in the details, such as “cherry-stemmed” carve-outs in wilderness that would allow motorized intrusions, defeating the purpose of wilderness protection, according to SUWA legislative director Jen Ujifusa.

The bill would designate wilderness areas around the San Rafael Swell’s core, which would itself be designated a national conservation area. More than 9,000 acres of public land would be added to Goblin Valley State Park, most of it rimming Temple Mountain, which would become a recreation area the state would manage for motorized use in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.

According to the Sierra Club, however, the bill’s wording on the national conservation area is riddled with anti-conservation language.

“This bill fails to provide even the bare minimum of protection necessary for this world-class wilderness area,” said the club’s Utah director, Ashley Soltysiak.

“Rather,” said Soltysiak, “it promotes development opportunities that will degrade and devalue these spectacular landscapes, under the guise of a conservation bill. As the rollbacks and concerted attacks on our public lands continue, this bill is simply another attempt to shortchange Utah’s public lands and sacrifice our wild spaces.”

She also contends Sierra Club and other key groups were excluded from negotiations over the bill. But other groups signed onto Curtis’ announcement of the bill, expressing optimism about the legislation.

“We look forward to working with Sen. Hatch and Rep. Curtis to identify conservation and recreation goals that are not addressed in the current legislation, and to advocate for those goals through the legislative process,” said the Conservation Alliance’s John Sterling in the written statement. “We appreciate the collaborative approach these members of Congress have implemented in developing this legislation.”