Environews: June 2018

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news around the state and the West.

San Rafael Swell in danger

Utah’s  congressional delegation has introduced yet another terrible public lands bill, this time trying to grab control over Utah’s San Rafael Swell.

In May, Senator Orrin Hatch (R) and Representative John Curtis (R-UT-3) introduced “The Emery County Public Land Management Act” which reads like a wish list for the mining industry, motorized recreation and anti-federalist transfer of public lands movement. One warning sign that this is not a conservation bill is a boast on Curtis’ website that it is “locally driven by Emery County and local stakeholders.” In the double-speak of Utah anti-public lands politics, the word “local” means county government and nobody else. It’s not even inclusive of Curtis’ own district, let alone Utah citizens.

County government is a particularly bad place to locate public lands control because of a lack of accountability to anyone who votes outside that county.

At the core of the bill is a plan to put the State of Utah in charge of Little Wild Horse Canyon and popular hiking areas near Goblin Valley State Park. Utah studied the area as a potential tourism cash-cow after a 2013 Republican-orchestrated government shutdown closed Utah’s national parks at the height of the fall tourism season.

While Curtis claims that the bill “converts over 97% of Wilderness Study Areas into Wilderness,” his math is based on a deeply flawed Bureau of Land Management wilderness inventory, not on actual wilderness quality lands. When the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance runs the numbers, things look different.

There are more than 1.5 million acres of BLM and Forest Service land in Emery County with wilderness values (roadless and untrammeled).  This bill would only protect 577,986 acres with the boundaries drawn to accommodate mining interests.

In the past, it has been beneficial for Utah to trade out inholdings owned by the state and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA). Not this time. The San Rafael Swell bill has been written so that there is no stakeholder input into such land trades. Worse, the bill allows Emery County to map the travel plan so that the county can claim roads anywhere they choose.

One particularly contentious “road” is the channel of Muddy Creek that flows through the Swell. During a few weeks of spring runoff you can kayak down it.

Curtis cites the 2009 Washington County Land Use Bill (Public Law 111-1) as a model for this new legislation, and that points the way to a better outcome. Nowadays, the Washington County bill is considered a model for how to solve public land disputes, but it started out just as badly as this one. Due to citizen protest, Senator Bob Bennett (R) and Representative Jim Matheson (D) reworked the Washington County bill and came up with a final bill that was acceptable to everyone.

Instead of misrepresenting a one-sided bill, Curtis and Hatch could do the necessary work to write a more balanced plan for the San Rafael Swell.

Citizen groups working to oppose or reform the San Rafael Swell bill include Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. suwa.org

Utah has three years to reduce ozone

The U.S. EPA has given Utah three years to reduce ozone pollution on the Wasatch Front and parts of the Uinta Basin or regulators will be forced to draft a plan to regulate activities that create this pollution. While stratospheric ozone blocks harmful ultraviolet rays (a good thing), ground-level ozone causes lung damage and can aggravate asthma.

Ozone is a summer air pollution problem that occurs when vehicle and industrial emissions react with heat.  Wildfires increase ozone levels. Commonly available air pollution masks are designed to filter particulates and do not protect against ozone and other gaseous pollutants.

MesoWest Utah Air Quality Observations: meso2.chpc.utah.edu/aq

Judge rules against coal ban

A federal judge has ruled that the city of Oakland, California cannot prevent a private company from developing a port for coal export.

In 2016, the Utah Legislature offered to contribute $53 million to the Oakland port in order to export Utah coal to Asia. Utah has also joined a lawsuit trying to force Washington State to build a coal-export terminal on the Columbia River.

The state’s heavy investment in coal is particularly worrisome because the Trump Administration has re-drawn boundaries of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to open the possibility of coal mining on the Kaiparowits Plateau. Likewise, a San Rafael Swell bill introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R) and John Curtis (R-UT-3) has boundaries carefully drawn around coal deposits—this despite that coal mining is becoming less profitable for tax revenues.

In March, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining signed off on a fee discount for the Sufco Mine on the Wasatch Plateau due to “significant and unique adverse geologic conditions.” Although the State of Utah will lose nearly $19 million in royalty payments, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) claimed that the coal energy would be “wasted” without the massive subsidy.

More fighting over Colorado River water

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that this year, water from the Colorado River flowing into Lake Powell will be about 46% of average.

Management of Colorado River water is governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact which vastly overestimated the total amount of water in the system. Ever since, users of river water can only get their share by taking water away from other water users. In April, the Upper Colorado River Commission (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) accused Arizona of manipulating the level of Lake Mead in order to get more water. Under existing rules if Lake Mead drops too low, it will be refilled from Lake Powell. The Central Arizona Project has been keeping Lake Mead levels in a sweet spot in order to maximize the water transfer.

Severe wildfire season expected

Low snowpack could mean an intense wildfire season this summer. Information about active fires, fire restrictions, prevention and preparedness is available on the interagency Utah Wildfire Info website.

Utah Fire Info: utahfireinfobox.com

Tar sands vigil resumes

On June 1 Utah Tar Sands Resistance will begin their 5th year of a protest vigil at PR Springs in the Book Cliffs. The grassroots group is protesting a tar sands strip mine land leased from the State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).

Utah Tar Sands Resistance: tarsandsresist.org

The Great Old Broad and the closed gate

San Juan County is using the courts to harass a woman who is a founding member of Friends of Cedar Mesa and former executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness (GOB). Rose Chilcoat and her husband Mark Franklin are accused of trespassing and trying to kill cattle after they closed the gate of a corral located on land owned by the Utah State and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA).

A wildlife camera recorded the gate-closing incident and Zane Odell, the rancher who owns the corral, speculated that the intent was to keep his cows from getting water. A broken fence meant the cows actually had no problem getting a drink.

A trial, originally scheduled to be held in Monticello, Utah, has been moved to Price due to a history of hostility towards the Great Old Broads organization in San Juan County.

In 2005 members of GOB documented an illegally constructed off-road vehicle trail in Recapture Canyon near Blanding, and orchestrated a campaign to close the trail. The Bureau of Land Management did shut down the illegal trail, but Great Old Broads were targeted for intimidation.

In 2007 an unknown person posted signs near Recapture Canyon that read “WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE: Members of Great Old Broads for Wilderness are not allowed in San Juan County Utah by order of the San Juan Sheriff Office and Monticello BLM Office.”

In 2012 a GOB campout in San Juan County was vandalized.

In 2014, a group of protesters affiliated with the militant anti-federalist Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy staged a rally in Blanding. In conjunction with the rally, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman organized an illegal ATV ride into Recapture Canyon that caused over $300,000 of additional damage. Lyman was convicted of misdemeanor trespass and conspiracy. He is now the Republican candidate running for Utah Legislature, House District 73 which he is likely to win.

Currently San Juan County has lawyered up for another lawsuit to claim Recapture Canyon as a county-owned road under RS 2477.

RS 2477 refers to a mining law that allowed construction of highways across federal land until it was repealed in 1976. RS 2477 claims are seen as a potential tool for transfer of public lands and privatization.

As for Chilcoat and Franklin, they say the accusation would be silly if it weren’t so scary. A felony conviction could lead to up to 21 years in prison for closing a gate that was not keeping anything either in or out.

Great Old Broads for Wilderness:

greatoldbroads.org Friends of Cedar Mesa:


Legal defense fund for

Rose Chilcoat and Mark Franklin:




This article was originally published on May 31, 2018.