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Front Page » February 19, 2002 » Opinion » Proposal is a Monumental Risk
Published 4,658 days ago

Proposal is a Monumental Risk


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By JEFFREY O. DURRANT, PhD

The recent proposal to create a national monument in the San Rafael Swell was a bold move by the Emery County Public Lands Council � a move termed "risky" even by some supporters of the idea. Many locals are no doubt wondering why the lands council is even considering a national monument and perhaps even more baffled as to why the lands council would be the actual initiators of such a proposal.

During the last four years I have had the opportunity to spend much of my time conducting research on the San Rafael Swell, research that includes attending most of the Emery County Public Lands Council monthly meetings in Castle Dale. I have also sensed the anxiety over the pending threat of losing even more control over an area many people feel connected to through history and experience. I have observed numerous efforts and subsequent frustrations of locally-generated land-use proposals which were created, sent to Congress and then defeated, largely due to the overwhelming political muscle of environmental organizations who repeatedly dismissed the opinions and experiences of local residents (on the rare occasions they listen), and continually promote caricatures of locals as ignorant and environmentally destructive.

The "risky" national monument proposal is the climax of these years of frustration. An idea that would never have been considered by local and state leaders a few years ago is now promoted as perhaps the last chance to assure local input for the designation and management of the San Rafael Swell. While I firmly believe a central and involved role for local communities is vital to successful land use planning and management, at the same time I believe the creation of a San Rafael National Monument will introduce more negatives than positives for Emery County.

Local community frustration over a diminishing role or "voice" in the management of public lands is certainly not unique to Emery County. Throughout the Western United States and across the globe rural communities in and around protected areas are increasingly marginalized in the processes of environmental policy and land use designations. Protected areas such as Wilderness, Game Reserves, Conservation Areas, National Parks and Monuments are growing in number and vastness. In 1997 the World Conservation Union listed more than 21,000 protected areas covering more than 11.5 million square kilometers (more than 2.84 billion acres) worldwide and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

This trend is being driven by increasing concern over protecting the earth's ecological heritage. But the growing popularity of this "fences and fines" approach has not emerged without accompanying criticism of its shortcomings. There is an increasing concern over the failure to involve local communities in the design and management of these areas. There are two substantial areas of concern: first, traditional community access and use is often lost as powerful outside organizations become involved; and second, the majority of these areas cannot be successfully managed without substantial involvement and support of the local community and true power-sharing arrangements. (The primary goal of protected areas is conserving biological diversity while limiting environmental degradation.) Unfortunately, serious efforts to engage local communities in these processes are rare and often the results are only the lip service of initial slogans or mission statements rather than lasting and meaningful partnerships.

The big risk of a San Rafael Swell National Monument extends beyond just the blind faith that the locally initiated proposal will come back from Washington exhibiting some semblance to the original proposal. The real risk is that even a locally-acceptable presidential proclamation (a situation of heavy and undoubtedly disturbing irony for many Southern Utah citizens) will radically and permanently change the landscape of Emery County. The desperate need of the public lands council to react somehow comes from the fact that things are changing. This is the inherently dynamic nature of places � change may be slow or fast, acceptable or painful, but it is occurring in Emery County and elsewhere. My students and I have had the pleasure of spending many hours in Emery County discussing public lands with, among other groups, the ranchers running cattle out on the San Rafael. While there is certainly a diversity of opinion among individual ranchers on various topics, there is a general consensus that the establishment of Wilderness Study Areas and the involvement of environmental groups and other interested voices has increasingly focused pressure on cattle operations. And concern extends far beyond these ranchers grazing cattle on public land. Initial results of a random survey of citizens in Emery County and five other southeastern Utah counties loudly and clearly demonstrate that there is considerable concern and even agony over the loss of local involvement in public lands management. Many local residents feel they no longer have an effective voice in public lands policy that directly effects them.

This loss of "voice" is due to the reality that BLM lands are no longer the forgotten lands of decades past. They have been discovered by the masses and more people hiking, camping and viewing the lands means even more people and organizations with an opinion who will want and demand a say in management policy. While the establishment of a San Rafael Swell National Monument may formalize local involvement through an "advisory council" (the long-term effectiveness of which is also a serious concern), their involvement will almost certainly be offset by the accelerated pressures that will develop as the San Rafael takes on a more visible and symbolically important role to the public masses who support preservation and expect a particular experience from a national monument.

In the words of Hollywood, "If you build it they will come." If you think that WSAs attract people and opinions, wait until the map shows a national monument. It will not be ignored but will instead be a magnet for vacations and dissatisfied lawsuits. And what will be the impact of a surge in the numbers of tourists and campers complaining that their view or "experience" was "ruined" by the sight or unexpected encounter with a lonely cow or two? The masses will demand camping facilities and other amenities; they always do. This will require more money, heavier management and increasingly a more national park-like experience � an approach that will most likely lead to less local control and diminishing what the San Rafael now has to offer. The San Rafael will evolve from a relatively lonely getaway (except during Easter) providing a variety of pursuits, into a land of pavement, toll booths, permits, restrictions and RVs at every pullout. The environmental impact of such an increase in use is well documented by numerous studies. More people will mean more impacts, not more of a voice for local communities.

I understand and sympathize with the reasons the Emery County Public Lands Council has finally proposed the unthinkable � in hindsight it appears a natural or even unavoidable evolution resulting from the frustration borne from being an increasingly marginalized voice. I believe in environmental protection, but I also strongly believe in local community involvement and see little hope of the first without the last. I have no answer for the loss of local voice in the San Rafael Swell. But I feel the risks of a national monument designation far outweigh any gains � especially since the entire conception fails to deal with the real concerns of the public lands council and many other local residents � wilderness designation and the variable deserving first consideration, vehicle access (a shortcoming expressed by more than one citizen at the Jan. 26 public meeting)

The establishment of a national monument will at least be a moral victory for the Emery County Public Lands Council and moral victories (even if they aren't what you really want or need) have been increasingly rare for local communities trying to maintain relevance in the ongoing struggle over the future of public lands in the western United States. (Durrant is with the Department of Geography at Brigham Young University.)

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February 19, 2002
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