By Amy Brunvand

Dewatering GSL could cost billions

Allowing the Great Salt Lake to dry up could not only suck billions of dollars out of Utah’s economy but actually reduce water supplies, according to a new report from the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

Costs include impacts to mineral, brine shrimp and recreation industries as well as health costs from increased dust.

Without the lake effect, Wasatch Mountain snowpack would be reduced by an estimated 5.1 to 8.5%. Environmental degradation would affect human quality of life, making Utah a less attractive place to relocate. The report notes that Great Salt Lake is part of the state’s identity so that losing the lake would involve cultural and spiritual losses as well.

Great Salt Lake water comes from the Jordan, Bear and Weber Rivers, as well as from precipitation and groundwater. The report says that human water use has already reduced the lake level by 11 feet, decreased its volume by 48%, increased lake salinity and exposed approximately 50% of the lakebed.

The good news is that conditions are not yet  beyond repair. New policies are needed now to avoid environmental catastrophe and future costs of mitigation.

Assessment of Potential Costs of Declining Water Levels in Great Salt Lake: fogsl.org/images/Assessment_of_ Potential_Costs_of_Declining_Water_Levels_in_Great_ Salt_Lake.pdf

Wildlands tourism booming in Utah

Utah’s national parks, state parks and ski resorts experienced record visitation in 2018. A new report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute says that visitors spent $1.2 billion in gateway communities near national parks and monument, and generated 18,700 jobs.

While the report highlights the importance of natural areas to Utah’s economy, it also implies a threat of overtourism exacerbated by lack of planning. In 2018, visitation to Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument surged by 17.8% to over a million visitors.

At the same time, the Trump administration has issued new plans that prioritize mining and grazing, including re-instating retired grazing leases along the Escalante River. In Bears Ears, the only visitor center is the Bears Ears Education Center set up by Friends of Cedar Mesa, a citizen conservation group founded by retired river ranger Mark Meloy.

In the absence of responsible planning, tourism can become yet another destructive land use. Combined with Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda of leasing and development, the tourism boom is a double whammy to Utah’s public lands.

The State of Utah’s Travel and Tourism Industry, 2018: gardner.utah.edu/wp-content/uploads/Travel-and-Tourism-Report-Nov2019.pdf


More threats to national parks

Thanks to public outcry the National Park Service quickly withdrew an order issued last September that would have allowed ATVs into Utah national parks. But that doesn’t mean the Trump administration is backing off from efforts to monetize and overdevelop national parks.

The latest threat is a misguided plan cooked up by the “Made in America” committee formed by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The plan calls national park campgrounds an “underperforming asset” and outlines ways to squeeze more money out of park visitors by leasing popular campgrounds to private companies. These companies would be allowed to modernize/citify campgrounds by installing camp stores, food-trucks, wi-fi, electrical outlets, equipment rentals and other tourism infrastructure currently the role gateway communities. Perhaps the worst idea is a recommendation to replace the Recreation.gov reservation system with a system of campsite scalping for the profit of third-party vendors.

It’s clear that more public outcry is needed to keep national parks unspoiled and affordable.

“Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee: www.nps.gov/orgs/1892/made-in-america-rac.htm


Republicans plotting public land grab

In October Utah Senator Mike Lee (R) invited a group of Republican senators and other politicians to Moab, Utah trying to persuade them to hand over federal public lands to the State of Utah. At the meeting, Lee said that “garden variety BLM Land” should be sold by the State of Utah in order to fund education, law enforcement and emergency medical services. Lee believes that if local government could profit directly from sales they would support privatization of federal public lands.

Lee praised Utah’s for-profit land management agencies, but failed to mention the downside. In Utah, the State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) which  manages land to raise revenues for education has become notorious for acting against the public good.

For example, a massive new frac-sand strip mine near Kanab is using SITLA land to get a foot in the door; Uinta Basin tar-sand strip mining is also on SITLA land; A SITLA gravel pit near Torrey sparked a citizen lawsuit; SITLA land near Bluff was sold to a private owner, creating an inholding in Bears Ears National Monument; and when SITLA holds property with recreational value, the public had to pay full price to keep these places public.

Lee also pointed to Utah state parks as an example of good management. However, in 2011 the Utah Legislature requested a performance audit of Utah state parks which were “under pressure to reduce use of taxpayer funds.” The report suggested reducing park staff and law enforcement, managing parks like independent businesses, and park privatization. Worse, the report suggested closing parks that didn’t generate enough visitor revenue.

In fact, the Utah State Park system is highly vulnerable to the whims of the Utah Legislature and offers no process for public scoping or stakeholder input.


Hearing addresses violence against land managers

In October the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing to address growing threats of violence against public land managers. A Government Accountability Office report says that from 2013 to 2017 the FBI investigated nearly 100 domestic terrorism threats motivated by anti-government ideologies.

In one incident, individuals holding anti-government beliefs “followed a teenage girl wearing a BLM shirt around the local grocery store and threatened to burn her house down.”

This violence is related to the transfer of public land movement which portrays the federal government as an illegitimate land owner.

At the hearing a spokeswoman for the right-wing Heritage Foundation suggested ceding “local control” to the militants and arming government employees.

However, Peter Walker, author of the book Sagebrush Collaboration: How Harney County Defeated the Takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had a better idea. Walker testified that communities like Harney County in Oregon have diffused violence with public dialog:  “The community bet that better solutions could be found by building relationships and really listening to each other—humanizing those with whom they might see things differently. For decades, over countless one-on-one phone calls and cups of coffee at kitchen tables, the community created their own ways to solve problems. When outside militants proposed violent confrontation, the community had a better way.”

No More Standoffs: Protecting Federal Employees and Ending the Culture of Anti-Government Attacks and Abuses: naturalresources.house.gov/hearings/npfpl-oversight-hearing3


BLM leases suspended for ignoring climate

The Utah Bureau of Land Management has suspended 130 oil and gas leases in Utah in order to analyze impacts from greenhouse gas emissions. The improper leases were challenged by two similar lawsuits, WildEarth Guardians et. al. vs Zinke; and Living Rivers,  Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Center for Biological Diversity vs Hoffman.

Nearly a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels extracted on public lands. A moratorium on new leasing could help the United States meet goals for greenhouse gas reduction.

The oil and gas industry has stockpiled unused oil and gas leases on nearly three million acres of Utah’s public lands, so even under a leasing moratorium the fossil fuel industry would continue to operate during an energy transition to cleaner renewable energy sources.


Utah oil and gas watchdogs foster ‘culture of noncompliance’

For decades Utah’s oil and gas industry has gone largely unregulated due to a “culture of  noncompliance” in the Oil and Gas Program.

The program, under the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, not only promotes exploration and development of oil and gas but is also responsible to enforce regulations that protect the environment and human health.

A legislative audit released in November found that despite 105 unresolved “noncompliant issues,” the agency could not provide documentation for having ever issued a fine.

Performance Audit of Utah’s Oil and Gas Program (2019): le.utah.gov/audit/19_11rpt.pdf


Navajo generating station closes

The largest coal-fired power plant in the Four Corners region has been shuttered due to the low price of natural gas.

The Navajo Generating Station burned 24,000 tons of coal per day and released more than 19 million tons of atmospheric CO2 per year. Its emissions caused regional haze that obscured views in Grand Canyon National Park.

The plant held water rights to 34,000 acre-feet/year of Colorado River water from Lake Powell. It is not clear who will get the water.


Just say no to Little Colorado River Dam

A coalition of environmental groups has filed a Motion to Intervene in order to stop a private company from damming the Little Colorado River on Navajo lands in Arizona (The Navajo Nation has not approved the water project).

The Little Colorado has springs near the confluence with the Colorado River that provide habitat and spawning grounds for endangered humpback chubs. The confluence is also a sacred site for many Native American tribes and is said to be the place where ancestors of the Hopi people emerged into the world.

Groups fighting the dam include Save the Colorado, Grand Canyon Trust, Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and WildEarth Guardians.


Envision Utah Common Good Awards

Envision Utah has announced the 2019 Common Good Awards for people and organizations doing amazing things to make Utah a better place now and in the future. The winners are (drumroll, please) Utah Governor Gary Herbert for championing long-range strategic planning for the future of Utah; Neighborhood House for providing services to enrich the lives of Utah’s low-income children and adults; and Marathon Petroleum, Chevron Corporation, Sinclair Oil Corporation and Silver Eagle Refining Inc., for reducing emissions from Utah cars by moving forward to provide Tier-3 fuel.

Envision Utah is a public/private partnership formed in 1997 that works with business leaders, civic leaders, policy-makers and community to help plan future growth in the Greater Wasatch Front area. The efforts of Envision Utah are often cited as a model for how to create sustainable change in a Red State.

Envision Utah: envisionutah.org

This article was originally published on November 30, 2019.