An innovative approach to increasing public involvement in federal land management decisions appears to have been scuttled at the starting gate by 2,151 voters in Emery County. Though the vote against creating a national monument out of the San Rafael was nonbinding, Gov. Mike Leavitt, the Bush administration and Emery County leaders announced in October they would not continue to push for the monument if the county voters did not approve.
If they hold to that, and they would be right not to, the rest of the Utah public and residents of the 49 other states will be left with no say on the future of a spectacular public land mass as a better-managed national treasure.
That result would be a sadly predictable victory for the special interests who want to control the lands debate.
The initial idea was touted as a model for public land-use decisions. The Bureau of Land Management would conduct surveys with questions framed, in part, by disparate interest groups-from environmentalists to off-road-vehicle (ORV) groups.
Sample groupings from Utah and at least one other state would be surveyed and any other interested person across the nation could have logged on to the BLM's Web site and participated.
But ORV groups inundated Emery with anti-monument ads and literature. When the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance supported the monument proposal, some painted it as a cynical move to kill what support remained. The theory was that SUWA is so disliked in Emery that anything it supports dies, leaving SUWA free to continue fighting for wilderness designation for the San Rafael.
The cavalcade of special interest groups clearly wanted to derail the proposal before their voices could be joined by others with broader agendas. Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson, among the plan's most ardent champions, was sent packing by voters.
One ORV group's president, Mark Williams, declared following Tuesday's vote, "People were just fed up with the way this was done. They wanted to be involved."
Clearly they did become involved, because they didn't want anyone else to join the debate.
They wanted the interests of the millions of federal taxpayers who have a stake in the land to be canceled out by a mere 2,151 of their number.
Federal, state and local officials should move the monument question to a broader stage, one less easily manipulated. Emery County voters have had their say.
Millions of others deserve the same opportunity.