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Front Page » February 26, 2002 » Opinion » Standing Still no Option in Public Land Issues
Published 5,480 days ago

Standing Still no Option in Public Land Issues

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"Why not just leave things as they are?"

That question has been raised through the years whenever public land issues were discussed. It is being asked again as Emery County ponders whether a National Monument is a good way to manage the San Rafael Swell.It's a fair question, but may be the wrong question. Perhaps we should begin by asking "How are things on public land?"

Imagine that we are on a sailing ship in mid ocean. No land is in sight, and the water is too deep to drop anchor. To complicate matters, a stiff gale is blowing and the waves are rolling high. In this situation we have two alternatives: Chart a course and attempt to sail, or drift wherever the wind takes us. Standing still is not an option. This is the dilemma we face in Emery County. Whether we choose a Monument, some other alternative or simply do nothing at all, things will not stay the same. Powerful forces are changing the way we use public land.

The first force is people. Within a day's drive of Emery County are several of the nation's fastest growing cities, including Salt Lake, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas.These city folks are venturing out on weekends, and have discovered Emery County. A recent Forest Service survey revealed that an astounding 28,000 people visited the Cleveland Reservoir - Miller's Flat area between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Ninety percent of these people came from outside Emery County.Visitors from both coasts and foreign lands are coming in ever-increasing numbers. These tourists create economic opportunity, but also have an impact on the land. And the more people, the more conflicts arise between various users.

The second force is a growing national awareness of public land. Like distant relatives who discovered they inherited the family estate, Americans have learned that they own public land out west. They want to have a say in how these lands are used and managed. In the past, most public land decisions were made at the local level. With growing national interest in these lands, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The trend is for national policies, laws and directives dictating how public lands will be managed. This shift has been fostered and accelerated by special interest groups, who have little local presence but great influence in Washington D.C.

Although Emery County enjoys a wonderful working relationship with public land managers at the local and state level, we have yet to discover how to influence national public land policy. Dr. Jeff Durrant expressed our frustrations well in his Feb. 19 Emery County Progress article. We have found a new openness in the Department of Interior under President Bush. It is that openness and concern for local input that make it possible to even consider a Monument at this time.

A third force for change is our economy. We are in the sunset years of a coal economy that has been very kind to us. State geologists tell us that we have perhaps 25 years of coal left. What will take its place when the coal is gone? And in the short term, how can we diversify our economy to provide a buffer from the roller coaster of the energy market?With nearly 40 percent of our local economy tied to coal, we simply have too many of our eggs in one basket.

For the past three decades, we have made our living from the coal beds of the Wasatch Plateau. The San Rafael Swell has been our playground. As the coal dwindles, more of our economic activity, in the form of tourism, will shift to the Swell. Monument designation would definitely be a step in that direction. Are we ready to take that step, and is a Monument the best way to do it?

The fourth force for change is looming national designation of public lands, wilderness being foremost. I have no crystal ball to tell me how and when the wilderness debate will end, but the trend is apparent. The Bureau of Land Management completed its inventory of wilderness lands in the early '80s, and recommended that Congress designate 1.8 million acres of wilderness in Utah. That figure was later revised to include the 3.2 million acres of land currently managed as Wilderness Study Areas. More recently, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ordered a re-inventory of BLM land that recognized 5.8 million acres with "wilderness character".

In the meantime, wilderness advocates conducted their own inventory and drafted their own proposal. In 1989, Representative Wayne Owens introduced the "Utah BLM Wilderness Act" that would have designated 5.1 million acres of wilderness in Utah. The Bill attracted 106 co-sponsors in the House and none in the Senate.

After Mr. Owens' unsuccessful bid at the Senate, the bill was re-introduced by Representative Maurice Hinchey of New York as "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act."The change in the bill's name was significant, as it signaled the intent to shift the debate from Utah to the national level. The Utah effort was being patterned after the "Alaska Model", which resulted in the designation of 57 million acres of wilderness in Alaska, despite objections from the state's Congressional delegation. The strategy is simple: Make your cause a "national" issue, meaning that legislators from any state can earn environmental brownie points by supporting it. Under that model, concerns of the affected state are irrelevant.

Mr. Hinchey's bill would have designated 5.7 million acres of wilderness in Utah, and had 116 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. By 1997, the bill had attracted 144 co-sponsors in the House and was introduced for the first time in the Senate with 11 co-sponsors.

At about this time, wilderness advocates conducted another inventory of BLM lands to determine how much wilderness had been lost since 1989. They instead found an additional 3.4 million acres of wilderness-quality land, and drafted a new bill to designate 9.1 million acres of wilderness in Utah. As of May, 2001, this bill had 157 co-sponsors in the House and 15 in the Senate. It now has more Congressional co-sponsors than the 1980 Alaska wilderness act had when it was passed. Acreage and support have steadily increased despite fierce opposition from rural Utahns.

America's Red Rock Wilderness Act would designate 49.5 percent of Emery County as wilderness. It is not my intent to debate the pros and cons of wilderness designation.I simply observe that this proposal would re-zone half of Emery County, and we have had no say in the matter. If passed, it is bound to have significant long term effects.

Other legislative proposals are waiting in the wings. In the near future we will likely see a bill to designate portions of the San Rafael River, Green River and Muddy Creek as "Wild and Scenic Rivers," which could affect access and upstream water rights. The Utah Environmental Congress recently completed a wilderness inventory of Utah's National Forests and are preparing a bill modeled after America's Red Rock Wilderness Act. They have identified 1.3 million acres in the Fish Lake and Manti LaSal National Forests as "potential wilderness".

Traditional activities such as grazing, motorized access, and predator control are being scrutinized as never before. That's how things are.

That's why things will not stay the same. New questions are raised. What course do we chart? Will a Monument help us get there? If it won't, what will? This should be our focus in the days and weeks ahead. (Worwood is chairman of the Emery County Public Lands Council.)

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February 26, 2002
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