Andy Rasmussen: Don’t throw away gains of Emery County public lands act

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Towering layers of sandstone cut by water and time near the Wedge in the San Rafael Swell in Emery County.

Hunting and fishing matter in Utah, and not simply as hobbies. They are part of our heritage and our way of life.

Last year, as part of a historic public lands package, Congress passed the Emery County Public Lands Management Act. The bill was a product of years of collaborative effort by a broad and diverse group of constituents and stakeholders and followed a recognized process for public lands decision making. It was part of a growing effort to resolve decades of public land management issues and provide certainty for both local government and public lands users alike.

Rep. John Curtis, former Sen. Orrin Hatch and current Sen. Mitt Romney demonstrated a willingness to work with all parties, establish new protections for wilderness areas and include standard, precedent-based language that reflected the most enduring elements of other collaborative public lands efforts in the past five years.

The Emery County bill was not without its challenges and it did not solve every problem. But it did offer sensible long-term stewardship for the landscape, largely under the gold standard of public land protection: wilderness designation (a net increase of 140,000 acres of wilderness protections) while meeting the needs of a broad spectrum of public land users.

It designated 63 miles of the Green River as Wild and Scenic and, in sum, it amounted to several hundreds of thousands of acres of permanent conservation, effectively balancing important conservation protections with recreation management designations that will promote high quality recreation opportunities while also protecting and enhancing the regional economy.

The Emery County bill has been criticized by a number of public lands advocates for not being sufficiently protective of Utah public lands resources. Recently a “Red Rock Wilderness Act” bill was introduced in Congress at the urging of critics.

We respect and appreciate their passion for public lands, but the bill only makes our work harder in Utah to protect our public lands. We urge critics to reconsider support for that bill. Disregarding the work and achievement represented in the Emery County bill is not a constructive path forward for Utah conservation interests.

Public lands policy in Utah has always been fraught with controversy and emotion. The state’s natural beauty and resources are limited and so the stakes are high. But in recent years many stakeholders have learned to come together in hesitant but cooperative efforts to ensure that the many benefits and resources associated with Utah’s public lands be available for future generations. This work is built on fragile trust and good faith.

Trout Unlimited and Utah sportsmen always encourage locally driven collaborative efforts that bring stakeholders together and foster workable solutions from competing interests. We believe the Emery Bill can provide a promising model for future lands bills in Utah. The cooperative process offered hope for similar process and outcomes in priority areas for TU and sportsmen statewide.

Andy Rasmussen

Andy Rasmussen is the Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project.