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Front Page » February 8, 2005 » Local News » A Decade Of Service
Published 4,400 days ago

A Decade Of Service

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Public Lands Council Director Dennis Worwood retires from council

Dennis Worwood recently retired from the Emery County Public Lands Council after a decade of service. At the request of the Emery County Progress he has provided an article detailing the inception of the public lands council and its role in the county over the past 10 years.

The Public Lands Council is an extension of the county master plan process. In the early 1990s, Emery County hired a consulting firm to help create a county master plan. The firm facilitated a number of meetings in which a broad cross section of local residents identified priorities and concerns. When the firm produced a draft county master plan, many felt that the group had missed the mark. The commissioners asked several local people who had been a part of the planning process to re-work sections of the plan. This group included myself, Craig and Eugene Johansen, Wes Curtis, Tracy Jeffs and others. When the "local" version of the master plan was adopted by the county, we thought that our work was done. Little did we know that the real work was just beginning.

In 1994 the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time in many years. With a Republican majority, the Utah delegation felt that the time was right to resolve the wilderness issue once and for all. They asked each county to develop and submit a wilderness proposal. County proposals would be considered as the delegation developed a wilderness bill in 1995.

Most rural counties wasted no time in submitting a "zero wilderness" proposal. "Zero wilderness" reflected the wishes of most rural Utahns. It was also the safest and easiest response a county commissioner could make, even though most recognized that there would be some designated wilderness in their counties. By recommending zero wilderness, commissioners were washing their hands of the issue. Any wilderness that was designated would be the fault of those blankety-blanks in Washington D.C. Congress recognized this and interpreted the zero wilderness proposals as permission to do whatever it wanted.

Kent Petersen, Randy Johnson and Bevan Wilson were then serving as county commissioners. They recognized that parts of the San Rafael Swell were certain to receive wilderness designation. They also recognized that a zero wilderness proposal would effectively remove Emery County from the discussion. Important issues such as boundaries, water rights and access would be decided by Congress with little or no local input.

Give the commissioners credit. They took considerable personal and political risk by proposing that the county work with various organizations and user groups (including wilderness advocates) to develop a legitimate county wilderness recommendation for Congress. The commissioners wanted a local advisory group to help them protect county interests in wilderness discussions. The group they chose was drawn mainly from those who had been involved in the county master plan process. That group became the Emery County Public Lands Council.

It was no accident that council members were chosen for their familiarity with the county master plan. The commissioners' intent was to come up with a wilderness proposal that we could live with, and that was consistent with the county master plan. The role of the council was (and is) to see that management of public land in Emery County is, to the extent possible, consistent with local needs and values.

The public lands council is not a group of people who represent their special interests to the commission. It is a group of people with special knowledge and expertise who help the commission represent county interests in their dealings with federal land managers and Congress.

The council became a machine that was fired up once a week, usually at lunchtime. Pizza and ideas were the raw materials that the machine used to produce maps, mission statements and proposals. The lunch menu was expanded to include sandwiches after Eugene Johansen complained that his system could not digest one more slice of pizza. The council met alone and with congressional aides, federal land managers and representatives of special interest groups. Meetings were held in Castle Dale and in Salt Lake City.

In the end, no consensus was reached with the interest groups, but the county did develop a proposal for the Swell. The proposal recommended wilderness areas that were smaller than existing wilderness study areas. It proposed designations such as semi-primitive areas as an alternative to wilderness in some areas. The proposal also included language that protected water rights, access, grazing, and hunting.

The Utah delegation used some of the county's proposed language but stuck with the wilderness study area boundaries in their 1995 bill. That bill failed to pass but had significant unintended consequences. The controversy generated by the bill helped SUWA gain 9,000 new members and achieve their goal of making Utah Wilderness a national issue. It was the best fund raising tool SUWA had ever seen. Some of the wilderness groups that met with the county were branded turncoats and were put out of business by the Utah Wilderness Coalition. Perhaps the only good that came from the 1995 Bill was the creation of the public lands council, and the contacts the county developed in Congress and the Department of Interior.

Since that time, the council has continued to meet monthly. We have developed two unsuccessful national conservation area bills for the Swell, and the infamous national monument proposal. The council has also signed memorandums of understanding with the forest service, BLM, Division of Wildlife Resources, and state lands. These memorandums basically say that we agree to work together to resolve public land issues. These agencies regularly report their activities in monthly council meetings. This flow of information has been a great benefit to the county.

People sometimes ask why the council has proposed wilderness, national conservation areas and even a monument for the Swell. Why not just leave it as it is?

Dennis Worwood is the USU extension agent for the county.

The answer lies in the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) which was passed by Congress in 1976. FLPMA is the organic act for the BLM. It tells the BLM how to do business. A common misconception is that FLPMA requires the BLM to manage all land for multiple use. FLPMA actually divides BLM land into two broad categories: land that is managed for multiple use, and land that is dedicated by law to some specific purpose. For example, FLMPA directs the secretary of interior to "...manage the public lands under principles of multiple use and sustained yield in accordance with the land use plans...except that where a tract of such public land has been dedicated to specific uses according to any other provision of law it shall be managed in accordance with such law."

On either type of land, the county's goal is to have management that is compatible with local needs and interests.

Since multiple use lands are managed " accordance with the land use plans," county interests on these lands are protected by participating in the development of resource management plans and through day-to-day interaction with the BLM. The county commission, public lands director and public lands council have been heavily involved in the resource management plan currently being developed by the BLM. Thanks to our memorandums, there is a constant exchange of ideas, concerns and information between the county and land management agencies.

Lands "dedicated to specific uses" require a different strategy. Land can be dedicated to specific uses only by Congress or executive order, and includes such things as wilderness, national monuments, wildlife refuges and national conservation areas. FLPMA makes it clear that these lands will be managed in accordance with the act or presidential proclamation that created them. To protect local interests on these lands, the county must see that the act or proclamation is compatible with county desires. For example, if a wilderness bill for the Swell contained language that diminished upstream water rights, we would be stuck with it.

I have attended dozens of meetings with congressmen, senators, congressional aides, secretaries of interior, BLM directors and other public land decision makers. In every instance, the county has been told that the Swell, or a significant portion of it, will receive some type of federal designation. Not one of these decision makers has felt that the Swell's resources could be adequately protected by FLPMA alone.

If these people are right in predicting some kind of designation for the Swell, the county must find a way to influence the wording of the document creating the designation. The most direct approach is to write the act or proclamation ourselves.

That's how the council got into the business of writing wilderness, conservation area and monument proposals for the Swell.

What does the future hold? The future of the Swell is tied to issues like the economy and the war on terror, since these determine who controls Congress and sits in the White House.

A Republican majority has not enabled us to get our proposals through Congress, but a Democratic majority might be enough to get SUWA's wilderness bill passed. A Democratic president would raise the odds of an unfriendly monument on the Swell, and perhaps on the Book Cliffs as well.

Right now the county is heavily involved in both BLM and forest service planning processes. We recently filed a lawsuit seeking title to 10 disputed roads on BLM property.

The county has spent thousands of dollars and hours in documenting these and other roads.

Court recognition of county roads could strengthen the county's position and help define wilderness boundaries.

However, a court victory is far from certain. Neighboring counties went to court seeking title to 16 disputed roads. All but one of their road claims were rejected.

Even if all of our road assertions are granted by the court, we will still likely have wilderness or some other designation on portions of the Swell.

Through the years, Emery County has been fortunate to have commissioners, public lands directors and lands council members who have been willing to work for the common good of the county.

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