A new day dawning?


At times, it seemed that peace would never break out in southern Utah. At least not when it came to wilderness. As Jim Stiles, a long-time chronicler of Utah wilderness battles, wrote in an HCN opinion piece last year, "Bullheadedness is what defines both environmentalists and those locals who'd rather see coal mining or oil and gas drilling as the basis of an economy" than tourism.

Nine Mile Rock ArtBut there's a curious trend afoot in canyon country these days: compromise. We took note last summer when the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a notoriously hard-nosed, litigious group, cut a deal with oil and gas giant Bill Barrett Corp. over a controversial drilling proposal on the Tavaputs Plateau in southeastern Utah. The unusual give-and-take left some SUWA supporters scratching their heads. So the group posted an explanation on their website: "Why SUWA Decided to Compromise with the Bill Barrett Corporation on the West Tavaputs Plateau." Among the reasons they gave was this: "We decided to engage with BBC in the hope that we could reach an outcome more favorable to wilderness protection in this area than could be accomplished through protracted legal battles." Not insignificant words from a group with a reputation for never having seen a protracted legal battle it didn't like.

Skeptics may have written that deal off as an anomaly, never to be repeated. But SUWA and a couple other environmental groups were back at it this month, this time finding common ground with Enduring Resources, another gas company, over a drilling plan for the Uinta Basin

Still skeptical that a new day will ever dawn in Utah's disputed wild grounds? Wait! There's more! A wilderness deal in San Juan County, "thought dead or dying last year when Utah Republicans booted former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett from office," still has a heartbeat, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. In discussing it, a county commissioner even doled out a bit of praise for The Wilderness Society to the Trib's reporter: "Their vocabulary is not limited to a two-letter word: ‘No,’ ” Lynn Stevens said.

Of course, there is still plenty of fightin' to be had in Red Rock country. Utahns brought an early legal challenge against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's wild lands order, which ordered the BLM to inventory public land for "wild" designations (read: no ATVs, no drilling). And Utah politicians fanned the flames of local fury: Rep. Rob Bishop, R, dubbed the order a radical job killer and "an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple uses of our nation's public lands." Congress obliged his and other Westerners' displeasure by defunding the wild lands initiative when they passed the budget bill. 

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Image of rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, courtesy of Ken Lund. Licensed under Creative Commons.

DJ  Gardner
DJ Gardner
Apr 25, 2011 03:08 PM
Compromise is good and all, but I just can't leave this be.

The ONLY reason SUWA compromised in both the BBC and the Enduring Resources cases was because they didn't have even the slightest possibility of winning in court. Sure, they could have tied it up for years in court, but they'd have lost (and they knew it). Wasting precious dollars in the process-for the oil/gas companies, the federal government, and them-(after all, they only get their legal expenses reimbursed to them-thanks to the Equal Access to Justice Act-if they "prevail" in the case. Oh, and their legal fees are paid back with YOUR tax dollars...hopefully that answers the question as to why environmental groups are so quick to sue. It's how they make a huge chunk of their money).

The SUWA isn't one to compromise. They only did so in these cases because they knew they'd lose. And losing to these companies, at this time, on this land would almost destroy their relevance in the debate (they are already taking heavy court losses elsewhere in the state). And they just couldn't afford that, both figuratively and literally. So they fired up the "propaganda machine" and started spinning away, trying to hide the fact that they'd have lost had they tried to fight, and also trying to make it look like this is "all part of the plan", and that they are still in control (so their high dollar donors and bottom feeder card carrying members will continue to write checks).
Kelly Jensen
Kelly Jensen
Apr 25, 2011 03:36 PM
My question is this, How does a radical group like SUWA even get a say in any of this? they are not a goverment entity. I'm SICK of them sticking there hippie noses in goverment business.Does The SUWA even have a office in Southern Utah?
Neil MacDonnell
Neil MacDonnell
Apr 25, 2011 03:38 PM
I love the romantic notion that we could choose between gas and oil extraction or tourism to support our economy, but SUWA doesn’t want either. Tourists would be okay, as long as they only hike in the great outdoors. If they try to bring mountain bikes or *gasp* motor vehicles they would be out of luck.

When SUWA compromises they still win. If they want to shut down an entire area to ALL forms of use and then compromise and settle for half, they’ve accomplished half of their goal, and they’ll be back to get the other half in a few years.
Bruce Mellberg
Bruce Mellberg
Apr 26, 2011 07:52 PM
Wow! Who could these three (previous) reactionary commentators possibly represent? Certainly seem hostile to SUWA aims, hence likely to favor slash & burn extractive hobbies, and never mind going bipedal to get to them, either! Whether the deal in question is a win-win remains to be seen... But who else cares enough to defend something called "public resource" from irreversible industrial punctures or lasting, bombastic tread-wear by taking it down to the mat (through the courts), when grappling w/strident, pin-headed attitudes like these? At least they (SUWA) took steps to sit with these combative characters to talk, which is more than many who value a far less mechanized encounter with the landscape could have--