Commentary: Emery County bill an opportunity for conservation and recreation

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

The outdoor business and recreation communities have plenty of reasons to criticize Utah’s congressional delegation. Late last year, Utah’s elected leaders convinced President Trump to reduce the boundaries of two recreation-rich national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by two million acres. (The courts will decide whether the president’s action was legal.) When Utah’s elected officials refused to budge on their anti-public lands agenda, the outdoor industry decided to move its twice-yearly trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver.

So it came as a surprise to us in early 2018 when staff from the offices of Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. John Curtis asked us to participate in developing legislation that would protect public lands around the San Rafael Swell in Emery County. Though skeptical, we engaged as we had in the Public Lands Initiative a few years back.

Over the past six months, we have provided input to the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which now proposes to protect 539,000 acres of wilderness and 341,000 acres of recreation area. The recreation area lands would be permanently protected from any mining activity and new road construction. The bill would also designate 63 miles of the Green River as wild and scenic.

From the outdoor recreation and conservation perspective, the Emery County proposal offers real benefits. It would designate a large wilderness and recreation area around Muddy Creek, a popular destination for adventurous hikers and paddlers. The iconic Desolation Canyon would be upgraded from wilderness study area to permanent, congressionally designated wilderness. And the San Rafael Swell would be preserved from any new roads. Though not yet ready for our full endorsement, the bill is a step forward for outdoor business and recreation groups who prefer the certainty of legislative protections for our public lands.

The Emery County legislation is also notable for what is missing. In the past, Utah lawmakers have peppered public lands bills with poison pills. Those deal-breakers include undermining the Antiquities Act or the Wilderness Act, or transferring national public lands to states. The Emery County legislation does none of that.

Still, there’s room for improvement. The version of the bill that moved through a key House committee proposes land exchanges between the BLM and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) that have the potential to undermine the interests of the Ute Indian Tribe. The Senate version of the bill does not include the land exchanges. Though these exchanges would increase the protected acreage in the bill, we would like to see this issue resolved fairly.

The current bill also has fixable flaws related to what areas receive protection. Only part of the west side of Labyrinth Canyon, a desert gem for river enthusiasts of all abilities, is included in the bill. Because the east side of Labyrinth Canyon lies in Grand County, which chose not to participate in this legislative process, the bill addresses only half of the canyon. Both sides of the river deserve protection over time. In the meantime, designating additional wilderness on the west side of Labyrinth, and creating a larger intact wilderness area around Muddy Creek would help protect this spectacular landscape.

One solution is finding common ground with Sen. Richard Durbin, whose America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act proposes expanded protections for both Labyrinth Canyon and Muddy Creek. By working together, Hatch and Durbin can deliver a significant win for conservation and recreation.

This bill represents the best opportunity we’ve had in years for Congress to protect nearly one million acres of public land in the iconic Utah desert, offering economic benefits and certainty to Emery County.

The dismantling of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments have poisoned the well among people who care about our public lands, in Utah and beyond. Members of Congress now have the opportunity to prove the system isn’t broken by passing a Utah public lands bill that everyone can embrace.

They are close, and with the clock ticking, we hope Utahns and those who love this land can push a strong Emery County bill across the finish line.

John Sterling is executive director of The Conservation Alliance. Amy Roberts is executive director of Outdoor Industry Association. Adam Cramer is executive director of Outdoor Alliance.