The Emery County Commissioners are hosting a series of meetings to inform the public about the Utah Association of Counties wilderness proposal. UAC began a series of meetings with members in March to discuss the idea of putting together a wilderness bill to present to Congress. Each county would take the lead on determining the amount of wilderness within their specific county that they could live with. The total package would be approximately the 1.9 million statewide acreage that was the BLM preferred alternative in their wilderness evaluation.
Governor Mike Leavitt has been working on a bill of his own which incorporates the 3.2 million statewide acreage which is the amount of wilderness the BLM found statewide although they only recommended the approximately 1.9 million acre figure.
The first meeting was held on Sept. 2 at the Museum of the San Rafael in Castle Dale. The meeting was sparsely attended by the public. Commissioner Drew Sitterud, who is the commission chair for 2003 conducted the meeting. He explained the UAC proposal and a little about the Redrock Wilderness Bill which is proposing nine million acres statewide. He said the SUWA bill currently has 145 cosponsors in the House and 13 Senators on board. Sitterud pointed out that the number of Redrock supporters has actually gone down.
Sitterud mentioned that the old West Desert Wilderness Bill is being used for the groundwork for the new proposal. Commissioner Ira Hatch informed the audience that a lot of the language in the West Desert Bill came from earlier Emery County bills which the West Desert Bill borrowed; strong language regarding water and prior existing rights to name a few. Sitterud pointed out that the other two congressman seemed to be on board, but our Rep. Jim Matheson was not. Sitterud's concern seemed to be that Emery County could be effected by amendments to such a bill and not have adequate representation as to the needs of the county.
Sitterud pointed out that 80.9 percent of Emery County is federally controlled and that we are pretty well controlled by them. Emery County Commissioners have attended all of the UAC meetings, but to this point have not joined forces with them. They have been asked by UAC to join in, but Hatch said, "We were pretty well clobbered the last time," which explains their hesitance to join forces to ask for a wilderness designation for any of Emery County. "Last time the big cry was not so much in opposition to what we were proposing but to the method and that we didn't give the people an opportunity to be involved. We are looking for a consensus: Do we want to get involved? Not get involved? Or take a middle road? There is no dispute, we do have areas within the Swell that do meet the criteria for wilderness. There are areas we could live with. If the wording in such a bill could include language that says if an area is not designated wilderness then it should be released from a WSA. We are right at the starting gate on this, if it is not the consensus of the people then we won't get involved," said Hatch.
The comment was made that citizens might think the commissioners were now pushing wilderness since the monument proposal was defeated at the polls in Nov. 2002. Kirk Johansen, public lands council member said, "You are having a series of meetings now to inform people as to what is going on, but you might have those county members who will, six months down the road, say they didn't know anything about it and say you're trying to shove wilderness down their throats."
The commissioners said that they would make no major move without the support of the county.
Commissioner Gary Kofford said he had attended another UAC meeting just last week which was called to see where the legislators stood on the issue and to explain UACs position to them. Kofford described Rep. Bishop and Rep. Cannon as being hesitant to say the least. Rep. Bishop is new and wanted to take a look at it. Rep. Cannon seemed to think it would be better to let it sit for a couple of years to see what happens in the next Presidential election. UAC would like to see the bill advance this fall.
The big unknown seems to be if such a bill goes before Congress, where will it end up and what will it look like as a finished product. Hatch pointed out that prior legislation that the county tried to pass became unrecognizable as the amending process began and had to be pulled from the House floor. There doesn't seem to be much hope that the same thing wouldn't happen again with the UAC bill.
The commissioners stressed the purpose of these meetings throughout the county is just to let residents know what's on the table. Kofford said if the county is not involved and listening then it could just happen without our knowledge and input. He pointed out with the defeat of the monument proposal that they are reluctant to get involved but, "We have no choice but to get involved." The commissioners stressed the need for county residents to get involved and write letters to them or call and speak to them. Also the meeting forum is a good way to let the commissioners know the direction residents think they ought to take in this wilderness matter. Hatch stressed that they would in no way move forward without county support.
Sitterud also reported on the RS-2477 roads, he said a meeting had been held at the governor's office and all of the pre-1976 roads matched up pretty well. Sitterud said they would feel good if they were to get 40 or 50 percent of the roads. Currently, no roads are being pursued within the WSAs as per the Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of the Interior and Gov. Leavitt. After current RS-2477 road issues are resolved, then the county will take a look at whether or not to litigate the roads not included under the MOU. Sitterud said that he didn't see any other way besides litigation. He pointed out the RS-2477 process is not moving very fast, but Emery County is one of the forerunners and they were complimented at the governor's office on the amount and quality of work that has been done on the RS-2477 road claims within Emery County.
Kofford said that Emery County is the jewel of the whole state and he couldn't see UAC moving forward if the San Rafael is not there. The Swell will be involved and the key is not to let the acreage get any bigger than the BLM preferred acreage. Hatch said that different acreages have been talked about statewide and he sees a need to really zero in on what qualifies in Emery County. There are lands within the WSAs which don't qualify as true wilderness. It might be 200,000 or 300,000 acres within the county and we need to determine that.
The question was also brought up as to why UAC did not get on board with the governor and his proposal. Sitterud said that UAC was considering 18 different alternatives and that statewide there are 83 WSAs.
Kofford also explained that the BLM is using Areas of Critical Environment Concern as another method around multiple use. These ACECs are managed how the BLM deems fit to protect any particular resource. He also felt that in the area of ACECs lies the next lawsuit. He also pointed out that ACECs could be worse than wilderness.
One audience participant pointed out that handouts might be useful for future meetings with acreage amounts for wilderness lined out and other numbers for clarification purposes. One question was raised about management of the public lands and whether or not we have a voice in that process.
Ray Petersen, public lands director, pointed out that the county has been involved in the resource management plan process with the BLM, but they are just one voice. Wilderness is designated by Congress and trumps the local office. He pointed out that currently there is no wilderness designated in Emery County.
One audience member pointed out that SUWA has the political clout and to go up against them we must be committed to a long, hard fight. Most wilderness supporters are Democrats from back East with California and Colorado on board. How much political clout does Utah have? SUWA always seems to throw in an amendment at the last minute.
Hatch said they will do everything they can to promote the desires of the Emery County citizens.
The consensus at this meeting seemed to be that the county should get involved and make a stand and go down fighting if it comes to that.
Direct questions to the Emery County Public Lands Department, PO Box 1298, Castle Dale, UT. Telephone 381-5552. Department located upstairs in the old courthouse building. Email email@example.com