Commentary: Utah’s public lands belong to the nation, not to local off-road drivers

Hatch and Curtis have just introduced legislation that includes a range of awful provisions for the San Rafael Swell.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rugged country of jumbled sandstone caprock in the Molen Reef area of the San Rafael Swell.

Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. John Curtis have just introduced legislation that includes a range of awful provisions for the San Rafael Swell and portions of Labyrinth and Desolation canyons.

It protects less land as wilderness than is already protected for those values. It makes off-road vehicle problems worse with an unprecedented legislative scheme. It undoes a protected area for coal mining. It allows Utah politicians to sue the United States to put off-road vehicles through areas designated wilderness. And, as icing on the cake, it furthers the state of Utah’s grab at our public lands by handing management of federal lands over to local control, which will likely result in an ORV playground around Temple Mountain and more crowding around Goblin Valley.

The biggest failure of this legislation, though, is what it doesn’t do. It gives no protection at all to the western Swell Badlands — places like Molen Reef, Upper Muddy Creek and Cedar Mountain. For Labyrinth Canyon, it uses an arbitrary political boundary to leave out any protections for one side of the canyon entirely, and shrinks designated wilderness on the other side to accommodate illegal mountain bike trails. The biggest wilderness in the Swell, Muddy Creek, would be chopped down in size to accommodate off-road vehicle routes.

It all adds up to a big step backwards for these lands.

In 2009, all of Utah’s congressional members appeared before a House committee to vow that if given a chance, they would take responsibility for protecting Utah’s remarkable wilderness lands. We’re still waiting a decade later, and this bill inspires little hope.

We can scratch our heads and wonder why our politicians have been so hostile to conservation and public lands. Why did Gov. Gary Herbert approve one of the most massive, resource intensive lawsuits ever filed against the United States just to put off-road vehicle routes through national parks and wilderness? Why did he beat the anti-public lands drum so vigorously as to push the Outdoor Retailer show to Colorado? Why did Rep. Rob Bishop waste years promising a wilderness bill before self-destructing his Public Lands Initiative? Why did Hatch waste his political clout with President Trump to impress a handful of rural county commissioners by throwing Utah’s national monuments into legal limbo?

Watching Utah’s politicians over the past three decades, it’s hard not to draw the cynical conclusion that many of them decided that shaking their fist at the federal government was not only far easier than addressing the real issues we face down here in southern Utah — like education, health care and jobs — but that it also conveniently appeases the far right-wing that dominates the Republican convention.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With the combination of Hatch’s retirement and Curtis’ fresh start, there could be a rare opportunity to protect Utah’s wilderness for future generations. What it would take is recognition that the Emery County Commissioners’ proposal is a starting point and not a finished product. Curtis and Hatch would need to work with us and others to improve their legislation to something matching the splendor of the lands involved.

So far, though, that opportunity is being squandered, as this bill is nothing more than another one-sided proposal by a small group of local rural politicians. It ignores the views of all other Utahns, to say nothing of all Americans who share ownership of these lands. If the delegation continues to hew to this line it won’t fly with their peers in the Senate, and this legislation will die on the scrap heap of bad ideas, like so many times before.

Protecting the public lands in southern Utah is unlikely to make anyone richer or poorer financially, but it will rein in the damage from off-road vehicles and keep Utah a great place to live. As Utah’s population grows and visitors flock to the canyon country, we need legislation to ensure that much of this land remains both accessible and free from undue impacts from recreation and development. The San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth and Desolation canyons deserve as much.

It’s time to recognize these public lands belong to us all, present and future generations, and not just a few county commissioners.

Scott Groene | Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Scott Groene is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He lives in Moab.