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Front Page » March 24, 2009 » Opinion » USA-All encourages SUWA Watch
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USA-All encourages SUWA Watch

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This article is a reprint from the Summer 2008 edition of USA-All Access Advocate. It is being reprinted with permission of the author and executive director of USA-All, Michael Swenson.

Have you ever wondered what measures are being undertaken to restrict your access to public land in Utah? Well hang on to your hat because I am going to give you the scoop. I must warn you the information you are about to read may be alarming and troublesome to say the least. Radical groups that are collectively and erroneously often called "environmentalists" have been busy beavers lately. This article will shed some light on the truth about one particular organization that has long threatened the citizens of Utah and the public's ability to enjoy and even protect public land.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance often referred to by the acronym SUWA. Ironically enunciating the acronym sounds an awful lot like "SUE-YA" perhaps because they seem to love to, well, sue ya, or at least sue the state of Utah, various counties, and certainly federal land management agencies. SUWA was established in 1983 to advocate for the protection of "wild" places in Utah. Their tool of choice for such protection was to convince congress to designate these wild places as wilderness. Wilderness is not a cute fuzzy term that means, "the great outdoors". It is a legal classification or designation of public land that basically allows certain places that have been largely untouched by man to remain that way. Land designated as wilderness is admitted into the Federal Wilderness Preservation System. The management scheme of such land is usually one of no management or hands off. Kind of like fencing an area off, locking the gate and throwing away the key. Access is extremely limited and by and large nature rules in these "wild" places. Land managers biggest concern in managing these places is keeping it untouched. Or in many cases in our state keeping people off roads, trails, air strips, old mine sites, you are now keeping any lasting signs of man from being created. Sound screwy? Read on. Letting nature rule and leave things "wild" and remote sounds nice to some. But when you're talking about places that have been heavily used by man before and after "wilderness" became a legal term and designation it's not such a nice thing. Wilderness became a legal designation under the Wilderness Preservation Act in 1964. It often means roads, campsites, and access to historical places, cultural sites, and scientific finds are in most cases prohibited. Access to such places can be so limited they may lose much of their value or meaning to society.

Since 1983 SUWA has pushed for ever greater amounts of wilderness designations in Utah. They have engaged in aggressive marketing campaigns and membership drives mostly in more sympathetic places outside of our state. As environmentalism became the new cool thing to do in the 1990's their membership rolls began to swell, as did their bank account. We have estimated SUWA's membership at around 14,000 members most of which we believe reside outside the state of Utah...seem fishy? It should. It begs the question, "why does this local organization that seeks to influence local management of public land have so few members and support from local Utahns"? and "Why aren't more Utahns involved"? Could it be that most Utahns recognize the problems with wilderness designations? Could it be that we recognize the harm it will clearly cause to rural communities?

SUWA has had various opportunities to get some of their beloved wild places designated as wilderness but because it involved compromising on other areas they have never accepted any of these proposals. In the past 25 years this group has yet to successfully convince Congress to designate one single acre as wilderness. They claim to have had a part in the recent Deep Creek Wilderness designation in the west desert but we all know that was a clever move by Congressman Rob Bishop to thwart nuclear waste disposal and transportation in that part of Utah. Despite their apparent inability to get wilderness designations here in Utah they have been successful in getting BLM to create defacto wilderness in the form of Wilderness Study Areas and the latest scheme called "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern." They also have been phenomenally successful in other areas such as fundraising, distorting the truth, and misleading the public and local media.

SUWA is a masterful propaganda machine. They are well funded and directed by many wealthy out of state figures. Two of their board members, Bert Fingerhut and Mark Ristow, were recently charged and convicted of federal crimes including bank fraud ( The Chair of their board of directors is a citizen of Switzerland and is one of the wealthiest people in the world. His name is Hansjorg Wyss. According to Wyss ranks #164 on the Forbes list of billionaires with a net worth of approximately $6 billion, making him the second richest person in Switzerland. It must be nice to have a sugar daddy with that deep of pockets. He also serves on the board of directors for the Wilderness Society and Grand Canyon Trust.

You know what they say about the company you keep and SUWA is no exception. In addition to the shady characters within their organization consider the groups they often partner with and tag team our government. Among their coconspirators are groups such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and Grand Canyon Trust. Amazingly yet predictably the local media has not realized that this self proclaimed grass roots group is really a well funded corporate machine. They aren't the little local mom and pop grass roots club that is trying to save public land from the evil corporate oil companies and the wild eyed red neck off-roaders. They certainly would like the rest of the world to believe they are the local underdog cause fighting corporate America and uneducated gun clinging rednecks but that isn't the case. They are in fact a monstrosity of propaganda, litigation, and to be sure a profitable corporation. To help illustrate this we found their public tax records on a great website

Here are a few financial facts according to Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's tax documents as filed with the I.R.S.

2006 Total Revenue: $2,491,787

2006 Total Expenses: $2,074,590

2006 Surplus: $417,197

Net Assets year end: $6,098,692

At the end of 2006 SUWA had more left over liquid cash than was donated to USA-ALL in 2006 and 2007 combined. Scary? You bet but we're just getting started. In 2006 they spent $194,935 on employee salaries and benefits. They have around 20 employees working every day to shut down access to public land in Utah! Of those are two dedicated full time attorneys and two more attorneys work in the organizations management as well as help with legal efforts. All total they have four attorneys on staff. They spent $556,672 towards propaganda or as they call it educating the public. They spent $709,235 towards "wilderness campaigns" aka closing land to the public, and $217,217 specifically on road and OHV issues which certainly included more lying to or educating the public. They spent $183,878 to prevent fuel and energy, exploration, development, and extraction in places they consider fragile. I often wonder if they believe in heating their homes with, driving vehicles that use, or turning on lights and electronic devices that require energy derived from fossil fuels. I am also unclear about where exactly these fragile wild places are they seek to save from mankind itself? The land I know is resilient and tough it has been that way before man set foot on the earth and if we ever disappear nature will continue to rule as it always has. Let's not kid ourselves about whom or what is fragile. Despite this we should tread lightly on public land and care for the land that in turn cares for us. According to SUWA's latest effort in Washington D.C. these fragile wild lands comprise approximately 9.4 million acres of land in Utah.

This land is owned by the people of the United States and is managed by the federal government through the Bureau of Land Management. SUWA has yet to place a target or a number on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The operative word there is "yet". I'm sure sooner or later they will go after land managed by the forest service. They are after all a successful business and winning the war in the desert for them would be bad business. If they ever accomplish their goals in the desert areas of our state they will undoubtedly start new assaults on our mountains.

Their latest wilderness push is part of a reoccurring assault on public land and the citizens of our country most importantly the citizens of our state. For the past decade they have aggressively pushed a bill they have entitled, "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act" some of its biggest supporters are the two primary sponsors, Congressman Maurice Hinchey of New York, and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. None of Utah's Congressmen or Senators have signed on in support of the bill. In fact Utahns sent a message to the sponsors of this terrible bill in 2008. During the 2008 general session the Utah State Legislature sent a joint resolution to Congress and told the sponsors of the bill to essentially step off and stop supporting a wilderness bill that harms the citizens of Utah.

Believe me if wilderness was such a good thing counties in rural Utah that need tourism, and other sources of revenue would be lining up to take the plunge but that isn't happening. In fact they have been fighting such designations since the beginning. Despite local resistance, and complete lack of support by Utah's congressional delegation SUWA has convinced others outside our state of the need to lock up public land in Utah. If left unchecked they will eventually have enough votes to push it through and right down all of our throats. I hope you're hungry because 9.4 million acres is about 41 percent of all the land managed by BLM in Utah. If history has taught us anything it is SUWA just like other radical movements cannot be satisfied nor appeased. If they got all they wanted they would come back for more. One example of this is the incredible growth of wild places in Utah over the past few years. Amazingly even mysteriously over the years the acreage of so called wilderness qualified land has grown. With each subsequent inventory new wild places are found. Early estimates by BLM for suitable wilderness were as low as 1.9 million acres. Since then SUWA has conducted their own inventory of suitable land and have made various proposals which have grown to the present day number of 9.4 million acres. How did BLM miss a few million acres, why has SUWA consistently increased the acres of land they found suitable for wilderness? I would say SUWA should sit back and keep doing inventories, shoot before long the whole state could qualify to be one big wilderness area.

I know I sound like some mad-man or conspiracy theorist. When I first started working for USA-ALL I knew the problem was real and big but I didn't realize how real or how big it was. In some ways I wish I could go back to the days of blissful ignorance, but I can't and I mustn't. Just as all those who read this cannot and should not. If you care for public land and love to get out and enjoy it then you must do something, or I will absolutely guarantee that we will lose it. It is fact certain. The longer we wait to acknowledge and address the problems associated with public land management not only the obvious problem of radical environmentalism but those problems on the side of recreationists and industry the harder it will be to resolve them.

In SUWAs 2007 annual report, which is available on their website at they list six different focuses. Passing wilderness legislation, protecting land from oil, gas, and coal development, protecting land from off-road vehicles, stopping the state of Utah and its counties from enforcing ownership of certain roads, involvement and influence on Resource Management Plans (20 year land use plans for BLM), and building a stronger grass roots movement to accomplish their mission of, "...uncompromising advocacy for wilderness preservation."

This group does not believe in compromising or working together to share the land. I have had years of first hand experience with them debating over places such as Factory Butte. They refuse to come to middle ground. They bully federal agencies into submission with threats of lawsuits; they infiltrate these same organizations with federal employees who have an agenda to serve environmentalism and conservation over the public. They spend millions of dollars on litigation that costs you and I precious tax dollars. Yet how much money have they spent on mitigation, removal of invasive species, habitat restoration, wildlife management, scientific or historical research and recreational access improvement? None to my knowledge. A recent example of off-roaders taking on the role of true environmentalists is the volunteer work given to place fencing around a bogus endangered species near Factory Butte. Not a single member of the environmental community lent a hand. Yet dozens of off-road recreationists have invested hundreds of volunteer hours, to protect a cactus and implement a compromise plan between users and BLM that few in the off-road community like.

SUWA routinely threatens state and federal agencies with lawsuits. These threats compel agencies to be overly cautious and engage in excessive and expensive planning, which cost the taxpayers extra money. They block oil, gas, and mining development, which costs us money at the pump, the grocery store, at home, and every aspect of our lives. It should be well known by now that when energy costs raise so does the cost of everything else. If we can't even tap our own resources for energy we have to meet demand by finding them elsewhere. Most of us are painfully aware of the financial and human costs when we as a country do not control our own energy supplies and are forced to outsource our energy needs to those who seek to destroy us. I often wonder if it really is about the environment. What environmentally protective measures does Russia, China, India, Mexico, and Venezuela, enforce when they develop and extract resources for U.S. needs? The answer is few if any. So does SUWAs efforts really protect anything? I think not. I take that back it certainly protects OPEC and many Saudi sheiks lucrative juggernaut on American fuel prices.

I believe SUWAs actions are very harmful to the United States and all who live here. But we in Utah are most impacted. This fascist organization needs to be called on the carpet for their egregious actions. The people of Utah must wake up and unite against them. They can be beaten. On a fraction of their budget we have stopped their abuses, challenged them in court, and won major victories. We know how to win the war but we need people's names and dollars to get the job done. The organization I work for Utah Shared Access Alliance is dedicated to seeing the simultaneous protection and responsible use of public land in our gorgeous state. We also are committed to stopping groups like SUWA from further harming the greatest state in the greatest country on the face of the earth.

You don't have to take my word on the things I have asserted in this article you can read for yourself search the sources cited above and on SUWA's website, you can read till you puke and that shouldn't take long. You will see we are not making this stuff up. They are a real and immediate danger. What are you going to do about it? We suggest you start by joining USA-ALL go to our website to do that. You must also let your elected representative know how you feel about these issues and tell them you have joined our organization. If we all unite under one umbrella we really can make a huge difference. You don't have to be a political geek or land use pro, that's what we're here for. All you have to do is care enough to give your good name and your hard earned dollar to a cause that will fight hard for you and your family.

Michael Swenson is married with two children. He and his family reside in Orem out of necessity. He would rather be living in a more rural area. He has been the executive director of USA-ALL since 2004. It is his full time job. He handles the daily operation of the organization, government relations, and legislative affairs. He is a local boy and graduate of Emery High School. His parents still reside in Orangeville. He can't think of a better place for a young boy to grow up. He deeply cherishs his childhood here and playing in the surrounding mountains and deserts. It was growing up in Emery County and the attempts to create wilderness in the mid 1990's by SUWA that inspired him to pursue higher education that would let him become involved and influential on these important policy issues.

Watch for the conclusion of this article in the March 30 issue of the Emery County Progress.

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