Tribune Editorial: Public lands in Utah take two steps forward and one step back

Good: Off-roading near Moab limits and a draft management plan for Bears Ears. Bad: Utah abandons Bears Ears land swap.

(Ray Bloxham | Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) Goldbar Canyon outside Moab is among the places Grand County officials would like to see motorized access restricted under a travel plan the BLM is developing for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area — one of 11 in the pipeline for Utah’s public lands.

Many states have things they are known for. California has Hollywood. Michigan has the auto industry. New York has Broadway and Wall Street. There’s a lot of wheat in Kansas.

Any politician in any of those states who denigrated or opposed the local signature characteristic would not have much hope of winning an election.

Utah has public lands. Large stretches of open spaces that are, to various degrees, preserved for their beauty, their peace, their potential for recreation, their cultural heritage, their niche in preserving the balance of nature. There’s a lot of money to be made in showing this territory to visitors, feeding them and renting them rooms.

Recently there have been some significant actions taken to better manage these lands, for now and for generations yet to come. There have also been some troubling steps backward.

Sadly and predictably, it is not the local political class that has led these accomplishments. If anything, Utah’s super-majority Republicans, in the Legislature and the executive branch, have gone out of their way to stand athwart these efforts.

Sort of like a governor of Florida picking a fight with Disney World.

Instead, Utah’s jewels have the federal government and preservation activists, particularly the five Native nations of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, to thank.

Limits to off-road vehicles protect precious lands near Moab

The Bureau of Land Management recently laid down new rules for where off-road vehicles may and may not travel on a wide swath of federal land near the resort town of Moab.

Some who love nothing more than to pierce the silence of these increasingly precious lands are crying foul — and getting the state of Utah to take up their cause.

But the BLM has struck a reasonable balance, allowing the internal-combustion din to continue on more than 800 miles of the roads within the 300,000 acres of what’s called the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area, while banning the disruptors from some 317 miles.

(Screenshot) Bureau of Land Management map of the Labyrinth Rims Gemini Bridges Travel Management Plan from Sept. 25, 2023.

As the social media meme says, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Trail riders have no inherent right to blow smoke on whatever road takes their fancy. And the fact that the open road miles still far outnumber the closed ones suggests that they are not victims here.

Despite our state government’s habit of filing lawsuits, and passing blatantly unconstitutional laws that spit in the face of the inherent authority of the United States of America to manage land it owns, this new BLM ruling should engender respect for the process.

New Bears Ears rules recognize role of Tribal Nations

That same process is now playing out as the BLM and National Forest Service have submitted for public comment a plan for managing the restored Bears Ears National Monument, also in southeast Utah.

Despite the incessant caterwauling — and lawsuits — from Utah politicians opposing Barack Obama’s 2016 designation of the 1.3 million acre monument, which was long sought by five sovereign tribal nations who have populated the area for millennia, the preservation of these ancestral lands is the right thing to do.

Even better, the draft plans released recently mark the first time the federal government has set out to co-manage such territory with Native nations. That’s long overdue.

Donald Trump slashed the size of the monument by 85%. Joe Biden rightly put it back again.

By law, the five alternatives for managing the area have been put out for public comment, for a period that ends June 11. There is also a series of public meetings, two of them via Zoom, to give people a chance to hear the plans and offer opinions. Like yours.

There are still a lot of options on the table, but fears that all of the monument would somehow be closed to off-road recreation, grazing and other extractive-economy uses are not justified.

Utah turns back on land-swap deal to spite Uncle Sam

Something else that is not justified is the decision by the state of Utah to back out of a deal that would have traded 162,500 acres of state lands within the borders of Bears Ears for 167,500 acres of federal lands elsewhere in the state.

The swap was approved unanimously by the Legislative Management Committee as recently as last June. Gov. Spencer Cox signed off on a preliminary agreement with the Interior Department. With that paperwork in hand, Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Mike Lee began the process of having Congress ratify the contract.

Had Congress moved faster, the state would have acquired land with less ecological or cultural sensitivity and a lot more potential for development, mining or drilling. At the time, state officials were all aglow about the benefits of the deal, calling it a “gold mine” for the state agency that manages such lands for the benefit of public education.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) View of Monument Valley, with the Bears Ears in the distance, from the Pine Spring in Monument Valley, on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Such swaps are common in Utah. Previous deals traded out state inholdings in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Utah Training and Test Range for more developable dirt elsewhere.

But, not quite two months ago, Cox, the Legislature, Curtis and Lee all chickened out of the arrangement. For no discernible reason other than to be sure that, in this election year, none of their right-wing political challengers can accuse them of working with the federal government for the mutual benefit of all.

It is difficult to believe a majority of their constituents think this the way their state government should behave. If not, they should say so.