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Front Page » July 22, 2003 » Opinion » Public Lands Focus
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Public Lands Focus


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By JEFFERY DURRANT
BYU Professor of Geography

"Sacrificing Locals on the National Altar"

When public land special interest groups decide to nationalize their issues, the first sacrifice to be thrown on the altar is usually locals.

Before the fight is taken to a larger stage, local opinions may be valued, local solutions are sought, local politics are often considered. But somewhere on the road to larger venues local intricacies, efforts, and concerns are pushed aside or trampled.

In Utah the classic example of local sacrifice is the fight over wilderness. In the early 1990s the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) decided to take their "Citizen's" wilderness proposal national. Slide shows of Utah's red-rock areas were presented coast-to-coast. SUWA sought membership from across the nation and feverishly worked to get congressional co-sponsors for their proposal.

While SUWA was successful in increasing membership and gaining numerous co-sponsors, they rarely even acknowledged, and certainly didn't value, anything emanating from the communities of southern Utah, where their proposed wilderness existed.

And why should they if their chosen stage is national? County commissioners don't wield power in Congress, and local citizens certainly can't influence the voting behavior of Congressional representatives from New York and Massachusetts. In the national and even regional arena locals are obviously not valuable players or coveted assets.

Even the Governor of Utah has participated in this tradition by hijacking the proposal for a San Rafael Swell National Monument in order to make statewide and perhaps national political points-never-mind the local political fall-out.

Now the Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-ALL) is apparently getting into the sacrificial act.

In recent years they have fancied themselves something of a champion-of-the-local organization. However, now USA-All also seems willing to chuck locals on the proverbial altar in their pursuit of a narrow goal. But being unwilling, or perhaps more accurately unable, to do the dirty work themselves, USA-ALL wants local leaders to fall on their own sword.

How are they doing this and why?

Well, for several years USA-ALL has made substantial efforts to become a more effective special interest organization, and I believe that to a great extent they have succeeded. Their main strategies have essentially mimicked the efforts of SUWA.

For example SUWA puts out regular updates via e-mail, now so does USA-ALL. SUWA has "action alerts" to mobilize members and supporters, so now does USA-ALL.

But the one thing that USA-ALL has lamented is that they don't have the full array of legal weapons that environmental groups such as SUWA possess.

For example, environmental groups are adept at taking full advantage of laws such as the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Wild and Scenic River Act-not really the foundation of USA-ALL.

On the other hand USA-ALL and other pro-access/multiple use groups feel they only have the public comment process and perhaps the Federal Lands Policy Management Act-and even these are better utilized by environmental groups.

But alas, USA-ALL has now dreamed up a legal strategy. Here's the nuts and bolts of it.

USA-ALL primarily fights to maintain motorized access on public land. Sometimes they win, but more often they don't and routes are closed. For example, the recently released Recreational Travel Plan for the San Rafael Swell contained a few wins for the pro-motorized crowd, but it also had a few significant losses such as the closure of Muddy Creek and the route to Seger's Hole.

When the Travel Plan was released, USA-ALL was relatively pleased. In fact, for years they had been among the loudest voices criticizing the BLM for not having a travel plan. They wanted a plan, and they wanted enforcement.

They got both when the BLM office in Price not only signed off on the new plan but also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Emery County that put a full-time sheriff deputy out in the Swell on a regular basis.

USA-ALL didn't appeal the travel plan and appeared satisfied. Obviously appearances can be deceiving.

On June 10, 2003 the Emery County Commission received a letter from USA-ALL's attorney. It threatened a lawsuit against Emery County.

Essentially the letter took the stance that Emery County officials had violated Utah law by collaborating (with the BLM) in the illegal closure of established routes (RS-2477 Right-of-Ways not designated as open in the Travel Plan) and in providing an Emery County deputy to help enforce these closures.

According to the letter the result of Emery County's purported illegal actions is, among other things, the impediment of "interstate commerce."

The letter concludes by stating that Utah public officials (Emery County and the State of Utah) can choose from the following three options:

One, tell the BLM that the closures are illegal, instruct law enforcement officials to refrain from enforcing the closures, and then the county must remove the signs and barricades that prohibit motorized travel.

Two, Emery County and the State of Utah must formally "vacate" their claims to the routes through a public process.

Three, continue with the status-quo and face litigation.While I must give USA-ALL points for creativity, the letter begs numerous questions and forces one to ponder the implications-here are a few thoughts that space permits.

Emery County's long-time efforts to work with the BLM and be an active partner in managing the San Rafael are possibly in peril. It appears that USA-ALL is willing to sacrifice the potential for collaboration and greater local involvement in order to hopefully (a big hope at that) develop a weapon to fight road closures across Utah and the West

It would be one thing if Emery County was forced to simply inform their deputy that only the aspects of the plan that have USA-ALL's blessing should be enforced. But if Emery County is compelled to actively tear down the new BLM barricades, then where does it end

Will they also have to tear down the gate at the end of the Mexican Mountain road that has been in place for years? What about the road to the lower black box and Swasey's leap? How about some of the barricades in the Sid's Mountain area?

And what about other counties? Will it be expedient that Wayne County, Grand County, San Juan County, Kane County, Garfield County, and others also go out and tear down any blockades that have not been formally vacated by the county and state?

Well, this is obviously the hope of USA-ALL no-matter the cost to Emery and other counties. USA-ALL may slay a bunch of local efforts and emerging relationships, but to them it appears worth the price in order to pursue a grander scheme.

The problem is that USA-ALL is backing Emery County into the wrong corner. It's farcical to imagine Emery County ripping out barricades. If push comes to legal shove it is more likely that the county will feel it has no choice but to formally vacate the routes.

This would essentially end the county's ongoing efforts to gain control over these routes. And I really imagine that USA-ALL does not want any county to do this. This aspect of the letter is obviously a bluff. And it's perhaps not wise to bluff with those who are well aware that you are more than willing to toss them up on the sacrificial altar.


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