I grew up in Price, Utah, just an hour from the San Rafael Swell. Any decisions that could impact this part of Southern Utah catch my attention. If repetition is critical to developing a “sense of place,” my love for the Swell stems from almost weekly visits throughout my childhood.
In May, 2018, Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced the Emery County Public Land Management Act (HB 5727 and S. 2809). The first thing I noticed about the bill is that all decision-making ends at county lines. Why is this? Does upper Horseshoe Canyon have less wilderness character just because it is in Wayne County?
I have walked the entire canyon, and it possesses some of the best wilderness character I have ever seen, the Wayne County part included. And what about Desolation Canyon? I can assure you the wilderness character of the Carbon County section remains undiminished. The land does not abide by county lines; neither should land management.
My second concern is with the “cherry stemmed routes,” visible on the map found on Emery County’s website. Cherry stemmed routes are roads that extend into roadless areas such as wilderness areas. In the Emery County bill, these roads would be excluded from the wilderness area, boundaries drawn on either side of the road. This would result in the permanent establishment of these routes. It will be up to the discerning citizen to decide which of these routes are particularly intrusive.
Concerned citizens should study the map and see where the routes intrude further into wilderness than necessary. The end of the Mexican Mountain road is a good example. The bill proposes that the road be extended beyond the current Wilderness Study Area boundary. This could involuntarily open up motorized access to Nate and Spring canyons, putting at risk fragile cultural resources. In fact, there is currently a settlement agreement that requires the Bureau of Land Management to identify and document impacts of new routes on cultural resources before creating a new Travel Management Plan. This bill has the appearance of attempting to circumvent this court order by failing to inventory these resources. To adequately consider the region’s cultural resources, the bill should be delayed until after the Travel Management Plan has been completed. The map legend could also benefit from a good faith assurance that the cherry stemmed routes are subject to the completion of the TMP.
It is undeniable that the San Rafael Swell has to remain a multiple-use area. I’m a backpacker myself, but I grew up with people who ride OHVs and mountain bikes in the Swell. I don’t want them to be left out. After all, the Swell is their backyard as much as it is mine. However, I’m concerned that the installment of permanent routes will make it very difficult to monitor incursions into Wilderness. For example, I have seen OHVs many times in Cane Wash—a current Wilderness Study Area—and have never seen rangers in the area. The presence of rangers would go a long way in preventing the misuse of WSAs and Wilderness.
HB 5727 and S. 2809 is not a malicious attempt to destroy the land we love, but it doesn’t adequately protect the entire landscape of the San Rafael Swell. There is a lot to work with, but the bill is far from perfect. If the bill could involve surrounding counties, resolve the “cherry stemmed routes” issue and address the many acres of Wilderness quality lands that lie outside the proposed boundaries, then we may have a bill to be proud of.
Ben Kilbourne, Salt Lake City, is an environmental humanities student at the University of Utah.