SUWA visits public lands council to discuss wilderness
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance addressed the Emery County Public Lands Council at their meeting on Feb. 3. Groene requested to be put on the agenda to discuss the Washington County Land Use bill which is through the Senate and currently before the House in Washington. He also discussed the existing Wilderness Study Areas, Re-inventory Areas and the "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act," which has annually been proposed in the House and Senate since Wayne Owens first introduced the bill in the 1970s.
In the Washington County bill Groene said, "No one got all they wanted, but everyone got enough that they all supported it."
Groene mentioned land exchanges that have taken place over the years. In the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, school lands were traded out for resources elsewhere. SITLA received land in Emery County where the Cottonwood tract coal leases are located. "With lands issues there is a lot of room for common ground. In-holdings, like SITLA has are difficult to manage." said Groene. If the state legislature passes legislation for land trades then this can benefit the economy of the county of the land being traded. He mentioned a trade of Grand County land for land in Uintah County and Grand County will still receive a portion of the revenues for the trade lands.
Groene showed maps of Emery County which outlined the areas in Emery County with wilderness characteristics. The maps showed the amount of wilderness being considered for Emery County in "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act" which would comprise 51 percent of the entire land in the county. Groene said wilderness designation doesn't mean the land had to be untouched but could still have fences and stock ponds. No mineral extraction or motorized travel is allowed. Livestock, hunting and fishing is still allowed. Groene said, "Is there a way to reach an agreement? We realistically recognize there is a lot of rancor about this issue." Groene said it is good to find out where you do agree and everyone gives up a little. Potentially over a million acres are under consideration.
Gary Petty, lands council member said he was concerned about the grazing rights on the affected areas. Since the GSENM has been there a number of grazing permits have been retired and purchased by the Grand Canyon trust and the BLM said after three years of nonuse of a grazing permit it would not be re-issued. Groene said the permittees willingly sold those permits.
Sherrel Ward, lands council member wondered about the impact this bill would have on the county residents.
Groene said there doesn't have to be a negative economic impact on the county. Those are the issues Groene hopes to work through. "Our intent is not to shut down," said Groene.
The question was raised, "If a large percentage of the county can't develop its resources then what are we going to do? The wilderness boundary runs up against the newly created Mancos Hills Industrial Park in Green River. It would also take in areas where proposed clean coal power would be located as well as the area where the nuclear power plant is looking at for development. Plans were recently announced for new power corridors through this area and those could be affected as well by any wilderness designation.
Petersen said the lands council had been approached by SUWA and they wanted to have some dialogue to discuss wilderness. Petersen encouraged them to attend the public lands council meeting.
The reason the council was originally formed in 1995 was to consider public lands legislation.
Petersen said, "The wilderness issue can't be separated from the other public lands issues. Wilderness designation is a resource, just as mining, grazing, historical sites, wildlife, water resources and recreational uses. This council doesn't agree on every issue, but it is an advisory committee to the county commission. It makes recommendations, but the commission makes the final decisions. This is a starting place. This council worked very hard to develop our Off-highway vehicle ordinance within the county. It is one of the best in the state. This is the place for those issues to be addressed. We encourage you to come and we appreciate the dialogue."
Commissioner Gary Kofford said the Resource Management Plan the BLM recently completed was successful. Some lands were opened for oil and gas exploration. Areas with wilderness characteristics were pared down quite a bit and the lands council and the commission were fairly satisfied. Kofford said he views the current Wilderness Study Areas and the Wilderness Characteristics areas as well as the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern as a starting point. If SUWA is willing to start there then the county is willing to continue the dialogue. Emery County might have a bill like the Washington County bill. Kofford said it has been frustrating to work with SUWA in the past because they have been unrelenting and unwilling to give any concessions and they had a win at all costs attitude.
Kofford said he is in favor of dialogue and getting the community involved and hopefully come to something that's a win/win for everyone.
Groene said there are going to be disagreements, but it is important to negotiate.
Kofford said the county is not willing to go back and renegotiate any of the travel plan and the roads which are now open for use.
Randy Johnson has recently been retained as a lobbyist for Emery County. He said that from the beginning the Washington County Commissioners backed and supported the Washington County bill. It created a process where people came to the table who previously were fighting on land use issues. It was a stretch for their commissioners and a stretch for the environmental community but it was good legislation which sets a pattern. The Washington County process can be used as a template and everyone kept the big picture in mind and everyone gave up something. "It's not about so much what's in the bill but what it represents. Sen. Bennett has worked hard to establish relationships with the environmental community. Sen. Bennett considers this bill important in his legacy as a senator. He's motivated to do it again," said Johnson.
Washington County was a good place to start with a lands use bill. They have problems and issues with growth that aren't seen in Emery County. There are a variety of species there they don't have anywhere else and it was a good accomplishment to get that bill.
Kofford said it would be good for the county to unilaterally sit down and use the Washington County Bill as a model, not necessarily doing the same things, but have input and formulate a plan and we would be better off than having SUWA putting a bill forward. Forming legislation is not new for Emery County. Ward wondered how far the county went with prior legislation.
Dennis Worwood, founding member on the lands council, explained some of the prior legislation Emery County tried to get passed. There is a lot of precedence for land use bills in the county. The county is well ahead of other counties in the planning process.
Bruce Wilson, chairman of the lands council said it is best to be proactive and not sit back and let others dictate to us.
Ward wondered where we go from here. Petersen said the RMP for the BLM has an addendum from Emery County which has copies of the documents of past efforts by Emery County.
To begin work on a possible bill, Wilson suggested meeting an hour early for the next public lands council meeting on March 3. Other work sessions will be scheduled in the future too. Wilson said, "We will want a lot of public input. It will take a lot of time and effort.
Vernell Rowley, lands council member said he thinks we do a good job here in the county of using our public lands, but not abusing them. "I can't see locking up a lot of land and taking away mining and recreation. I think we can work with them (SUWA) but be real careful we don't want people to lose rights on the desert.
Groene said discussions shouldn't center around whether wilderness is bad or good, but should just discuss specific places.
The "America's Redrock Wilderness Act" hasn't been introduced yet in this new congress and that will happen sometime in the House and the Senate in the next couple of months. At the end of the last Congress, there were 20 Senate sponsors and 161 House co-sponsors.
Since the public lands meeting on Feb. 3, the council has made the following statements:
The Emery County Public Lands Council does not endorse SUWAs Redrock Wilderness Bill. Wilderness is a public lands resource and should be addressed in a manner consistent with how other resource issues are addressed. It is not in the best interest of Emery County for the Public Lands Council to deny legitimate requests by the public to address public lands resource issues within Emery County. The Council intends to conduct some work meetings intending to educate and inform the current council on this issue.