Redge Johnson: Let Utah manage public lands the right way

Heavy-handed federal regulation of Utah’s public lands just make things worse.

Courtesy U.S. Forest Service Aspen display full fall colors September 30, 2011 on the east side of Monroe Mountain, above the community of Greenwich, Utah, in the Fishlake National Forest. Photo by John Zapell.

Although native aspen forests are declining throughout the western United States, you wouldn’t know it if you visited Utah’s Monroe Mountain, south of Richfield.

Through the combination of prescribed fires, reseeding and mechanical removal of coniferous trees, lush aspen stands are returning across the landscape. These healthy young aspen groves provide ideal habitat to native wildlife, improve water quality in local streams and offer a beautiful destination for camping, hunting, hiking and other forms of recreation.

Monroe Mountain is but one example of sites across Utah where hands-on, mechanical improvements to the landscape are successfully being used to better conserve and protect our public lands. Whether it be the mechanized restoration of sagebrush habitat essential to the greater sage grouse, thinning of dense conifer forests to reduce the threat of bark beetle infestations, construction of fire breaks to protect communities at-risk from catastrophic wildfires or removal of invasive tamarisk from the banks of the Colorado River, Utah’s public lands benefit when land managers use hands-on methods to confront growing ecological challenges.

Incongruent as it may seem, heavy mechanical equipment and access roads are often necessary tools to meet these challenges and ensure healthy, productive landscapes for future generations.

Unfortunately, mechanical means of landscape improvement, and the access roads they require, are typically prohibited in national monuments, wilderness areas and other types of heavily regulated federal designations that, in the name of “protecting” Utah’s landscapes, often do more harm than good.

Such heavily regulated public lands are often the most prone to insect infestation, catastrophic wildfires, sagebrush decline and other maladies afflicting Utah’s public lands precisely because federal designations prevent the kinds of active landscape management that these lands need.

Even on Monroe Mountain, home to such a successful aspen regeneration project, the work is proceeding more slowly and with more regulatory burdens on the areas of the mountain designated as federal “roadless areas.”

As Utah continues to grapple with drought, climate change and other problems, the disparity between healthy, well-managed public lands and the “hands-off” lands under strict federal regulations continue to grow more noticeable.

Overly burdensome federal designations on public lands also impede Utah’s contributions to the global fight against climate change. Many of Utah’s public lands contain critical minerals essential to building batteries and supporting the electrification of America’s infrastructure. Many of Utah’s public lands have traditionally been open to responsible and sustainable mineral extraction, but federal regulations on national monuments, wilderness areas, “areas of critical environmental concern,” and other restricted lands prohibit the mining of the materials needed to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint.

National monuments, wilderness areas and other protected lands certainly have a place in Utah’s landscape, as do Utah’s treasured national parks. There may be additional lands that warrant such designations. But with the federal government already managing almost 67% of Utah’s land, massive federal designations such as the original Bears Ears National Monument (an astonishing 1,351,849 acres) simply don’t make sense.

The ecological challenges facing Utah’s lands are too great, and a vast landscape the size of Bears Ears needs a diverse array of hands-on management techniques to restore wildlife habitat, regenerate aspen colonies, reduce wildfire risk and protect watersheds, as well as allowing for extraction of critical minerals in certain areas. Surely there are some tracts within the original Bears Ears footprint that warrant prohibitions on landscape management and motorized vehicles, allowing nature to simply run its course. But such designations must be at the appropriate scale to avoid landscape-scale ecological decline.

President Joe Biden’s declared goal is to “conserve” 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by the year 2030. Utah fully supports the greater conservation of our lands – if conservation can happen the right way. This includes actively working to restore and protect landscapes using the full suite of tools available, even when short-term impacts are necessary to create long-term ecological improvements.

We urge President Biden to avoid the heavy-handed “fortress conservation” mentality displayed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama when creating Utah’s supersized national monuments.

Conservation is at the very core of Utah’s values, and Utahns will keep working to improve our public lands when given the tools and the flexibility to do so.

Redge Johnson

Redge Johnson is executive director of the Utah Governor’s Public Lands Policy Office.