Environews, Environews

Environews: San Rafael Swell in danger

By Amy Brunvand

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

This article was originally published on June 7, 2018.