Commentary: What legacy is Hatch really leaving us?

The Green River in Labyrinth Canyon showing the saddle of the Bowknot, photographed by John K. Hillers during Powell's 2nd expedition in 1872. The saddle of the Bowknot. Major John Wesley Powell was a soldier who lost his arm in the Civil War, and went on to become a geology professor, American Indian expert, western conservation advocate, and an explorer who's most famous expedition was a 900-mile journey on the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1870.

At the end of his 40-plus year tenure as the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history, retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is clinging to the past. And he’s trying to drag Utah with him.

Hatch’s “Not-so-Swell” bill, the Emery County Public Land Management Act of 2018, passed a Senate markup in early October. The bill remains a one-sided proposal from a county that openly admits it is attempting to designate the minimum amount of wilderness it can get away with.

Hatch’s Emery County bill follows his goading President Trump into eviscerating Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments last December — slapping down Native American Tribes, undercutting local businesses and opening some of America’s most spectacular lands for development. It’s an ultimately futile effort, since the boom and bust industries that drove the state’s economy when Hatch first won office in 1977 continue to fade in the rear view mirror.

Now Hatch intends to try to ram his Emery County legislation through the Senate by either sticking it on a behemoth public lands package, or by attempting to sneak it on to unrelated legislation. He knows that even a Republican controlled Senate would reject his current proposal if he tried to pass it on its own merits.

His bill is all about the outdated fantasy that protecting Utah’s public lands harms us as a state. The bill leaves more than two-thirds of the deserving wilderness in Emery County unprotected. It lacks sufficient protections for Muddy Creek, which, as the largest unprotected wilderness in the county, would be a no-brainer in a legitimate bill. It also omits important parts of Labyrinth Canyon, Utah’s premier flatwater multi-day river experience for families, beginners and experts alike. And the bill envisions no protection whatsoever for the San Rafael Badlands, a rugged and incredibly wild landscape that is chock full of unique and precious archaeological sites, where hundreds of new and significant cultural sites have been discovered in the past five years.

Hatch’s counterpart in the House, Rep. John Curtis, is fond of saying that nobody will get everything they want in this bill. But even if those three places were added, only half of the deserving wilderness proposed in this region under America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act would gain protection.

On the other hand, a small number of Emery County officials are getting plenty from these lands that belong to all Americans. The county will be given over four square miles of public land that currently belong to all of us. The bill gives the state of Utah more than 10 square miles to expand Goblin Valley State Park, where the public would face entrance fees to enter lands they used to own. It also takes a bite out of an existing wilderness study area to facilitate a coal mine. And the designation that was to be a national conservation area in early versions of the bill has been downgraded to a “national recreation area,” unfortunately including management that will result in more recreational impacts to already overused areas.

Finally, Hatch’s office removed a federal-state land exchange that would have consolidated scattered state parcels in areas designated wilderness and traded them for lands elsewhere. Done well, land exchanges like these can be a conservation gain. But it became clear that the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) intended to include in the trade disputed lands that the Ute Tribe claims as its own. Rather than telling SITLA to come up with a better proposal, Hatch’s office instead chose to sweep the issue under the rug. Now, if the bill passes, the state lands will be stranded, and the school kids the Utah delegation likes to use as an excuse to thwart conservation efforts will get diddly.

Hatch intends to force this bill through Congress in the very limited time left in this session, daring us to try to stop him. We think we can. If he wins, it resolves nothing, as wilderness advocates will be back the next day fighting to protect the omitted lands. If we win, it’s back to “Go.”

Either is a poor outcome.

It’s not too late to reach an agreement that protects one of Utah’s most treasured landscapes, and leaves the retiring senator with a legacy that would long be appreciated by Utahns.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Groene, of the Southern Utah Wildnerness Alliance speaks to conservation community groups gathered at the Utah Capitol rotunda.

Scott Groene, Moab, is the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.