When President Trump removed protection for nearly 2 million acres of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments — over the objections of Native American tribes, local businesses, and millions of Americans and Utahns — he inflamed the longstanding tug-of-war over public lands in Utah.
The president’s actions are unprecedented and illegal. They will not withstand judicial scrutiny, and will ultimately be added to the pile of failed, anti-public lands efforts that has accumulated at the feet of generations of misguided officials.
Isn’t there something else we can try?
A cynic will reply that we did, with Rep. Rob Bishop’s oft-vaunted Public Lands Initiative (PLI), which was introduced in the House with much fanfare in 2016. Although it began with good intentions, the final PLI was little more than a one-sided wish list for energy interests and off-road vehicle enthusiasts. Accordingly, it died a quick death in Congress.
Out of the ashes of the failed PLI, Rep. John Curtis has expressed interest in creating a comprehensive lands bill for the Emery County region. We appreciate that he has committed to work with all sides, including SUWA. Time and again, the Utah congressional delegation has tried to ram through a one-sided proposal, leading to another bruising fight with inevitable failure.
It’s time for something different. Just as we recognize that Emery County has a legitimate proposal, all parties must also recognize that this proposal reflects only one side’s perspective. These lands belong to all Americans. Utah’s congressional delegation must acknowledge both that and the strong support for land protection throughout the state. Only legislation negotiated with conservation interests will succeed.
There are already numerous points of agreement.
There is broad recognition that scattered state sections, intended to help fund public schools, are isolated and often economically worthless. Legislation that trades out those sections and consolidates them elsewhere would benefit both education budgets and conservation.
The spectacular San Rafael region deserves protection, as does Labyrinth Canyon within Emery County. However, we should not limit our thinking to the arbitrary political boundaries of the county. The western bank of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon falls within Emery County, while the eastern bank is in Grand County. Legislation covering only the right-hand half of the canyon makes little sense for the landscape. All of Labyrinth should be addressed.
Off-road vehicle use is the primary conflict for these spectacular landscapes. In the wake of a judge overturning the Richfield Bureau of Land Management’s motorized travel plan, an extraordinary agreement was reached between the Trump administration and off-road vehicle and conservation groups that ended the litigation in favor of developing new travel plans, including for the San Rafael Swell. The county’s proposal to enshrine the old and defeated travel plan is unacceptable.
Much has been made, and for good reason, of the extreme crowding around Bell and Little Wild Horse Canyons. Let’s take advantage of the existing Goblin Valley State Park and its staff to bring management issues under control. However, it would be a mistake to add new recreational amenities and, in turn, additional use to this remote area, as has been proposed. Any recreation and tourist infrastructure should be built in the front country near local communities such as Green River and the towns along Highway 10 (if that’s what these communities choose). Then visitors can stay and spend their dollars in the towns, rather than breaking apart remote backcountry areas. This also keeps the need for intensive management, and search and rescue, closer to where people live.
Protecting these lands is unlikely to make anyone richer or poorer financially, but it will keep Utah a great place to live. As Utah’s population grows and visitors flock to the canyon country, a successful San Rafael/Labyrinth bill will ensure that much of this land remains both accessible and free from undue impacts from recreation and development. While the state’s growth has brought benefits, many of us across all political spectrums lament the loss of wild, open spaces. It’s time to definitively plan for the future as to hold onto the places we treasure. The San Rafael Swell is a good place to start, and we look forward to working with Rep. Curtis on a fair and brokered process.
Scott Groene, Moab, is the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.