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Front Page » September 3, 2002 » Opinion » Rowing Along National Monument Processes
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Rowing Along National Monument Processes


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By JEFFREY O. DURRANT, PhD


Citizen involvement in public lands policy and management processes isn't the easiest task-in fact it can often be downright frustrating. Making sense out of this byzantine world is often such a daunting task that only individuals and groups with strong interests are willing to negotiate the perplexing systems and figure out how to effectively participate.

Unfortunately the current processes surrounding a potential National Monument in the San Rafael Swell appear to be no exception. What follows is an attempt to describe the various processes and offer some brief insights as to why they are happening. Many of these issues are complex and deserve a closer look than can be provided in this space.

I've stated 'processes' because there appear to be at least three processes involved that are largely separate, lacking in coordination, and not mutually informed. Each has its own agenda, purpose, intent, and because of this any practical or logical sequence has been lost. In short the donkey is often chasing the cart and nobody is quite sure what path they took.

Process number one. The BLM is currently putting together a "Resource Inventory Report." This exercise has the following components: first, a technical symposium (held Aug. 28) directed at identifying sources of information on the San Rafael Swell; second, the dissemination of this information to the interested public via a resource symposium (Sept. 19-20) and various expert-led field trips into the San Rafael Swell; third, the publication (currently scheduled for Nov. 14) of a Resource Inventory Report. This process, according to the BLM-hired consultant, is to be "monument neutral." There will be no development nor discussion of proposal alternatives.

Process number two. A public opinion survey jointly paid for by Emery County, the State of Utah, and the BLM is currently being designed. The original idea here was that a National Monument proposal or various options for a National Monument would be subject to a public opinion process at the local, state, and national level. The problem is that this survey is taking form before Emery County takes the opportunity to develop a local or "ground-up" proposal.

The result of this out-of-sequence process is that the survey is turning into a tool that attempts to mediate or resolve the long-standing struggle over Wilderness designation instead of a sampling of opinion on a Monument proposal developed by Emery County. The intent or purpose of the entire Monument concept appears to have been lost in this effort.

Process number three. Emery County's development of a "local" National Monument proposal. This process has been going on for months, with roots that go back years. But it appears to have been stalled, or as Commissioner Randy Johnson recently put it, "Our rowboat has been hijacked by a yacht." There were several meetings held to engage local citizens, but the logical next step of creating an actual proposal and discussing the specifics locally appears to have been lost in the wake of the arriving yacht.

In all fairness who of us paddling away in a modest rowboat under an intense sun would not be at least tempted or even grateful for the opportunity to ride in a sleek yacht? Yachts have more amenities and horsepower. What hope does a rowboat have of keeping up?

Why has the Emery County process and initiative been overwhelmed and pushed into the background by outside forces? Why the lack of a proper sequence for a truly "bottom-up"process captained by local input? Why has the local proposal, which should be the basis for everything else, not been completed first?

Well, there are a number of reasons and only space to mention a few main causes. The Monument idea has attracted tremendous interest. People and organizations from all over want a piece of the action, and many have a lot more political pull than Emery County.

Governor Leavitt's ill-advised State of the State speech threw the whole process out-of-whack, and Emery County leaders are still fighting the notion that the whole concept was a "done deal" before local citizens were informed. Governor Leavitt has different political objectives than County Commissioners, and he took the Monument horse for a public relations ride around Utah while Emery County was looking for a saddle.

The Governor's joy ride led to a loss of credibility by local Monument promoters; a situation that led directly to opponents placing the Monument idea on this November's ballot as a referendum. The presence of a referendum has placed added pressure on Monument promoters and shortened the time frame in which to gain support and legitimize their efforts. In discussing the referendum with County leaders it appears that despite everything else the referendum should decide the issue. If the vote is in favor then there will be no holding back Monument promoters. On the other hand if it's negative, County leaders will withdraw their support and hope that previous Bush administration promises to drop the idea without local support will be honored.

And this leads us to national politics. The whole idea to have a national opinion survey is not because these lands belong to all citizens and everyone deserves input. Rather because all citizens have a vote, and in the national scheme of things Utah is not so important (as previously evidenced by President Clinton's Monument activities). President Bush needs to cover his political backside. The national public opinion process is basically to legitimize his action if a National Monument is designated. Therefore it appears not to matter if the survey is based on the reality of a locally-developed proposal, just as long as it looks like a sincere effort.

It would have been naive of any of us to think that national politics would stay out of the mix. Politics created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and they appear to be a dominant force in the potential creation of a sister Monument in the San Rafael Swell.

While it would be nice to have a more thoughtful or logical process, we are left with what we have. Did Emery County lose control? Well, perhaps Emery County never really had any control. "Bottom-up" processes are often no more than politically-pleasing rhetoric and typically end up as the same old story-after all there are a lot of yachts cruising around.

But despite this messy and often backwards situation, local citizens shouldn't give up all hope of being able to effectively participate. Emery County will apparently hold more public meetings, and perhaps this will provide opportunities to craft and critique an actual proposal-even if it's a bit late in the game. And if all else fails there is still November's referendum-part of the problem, but potentially the last resort for the local rowboat. (Jeffrey O. Durrant is a professor with the Department of Geography at Brigham Young University. He can be reached by phone at (801) 422-4116; by fax at (801) 422-0266; or by email at jod2@email.byu.edu.)


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September 3, 2002
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