Stirrings in the San Rafael Swell

by Catherine Lutz

A recreation explosion forces some action in Utah's deadlocked wilderness debate




SAN RAFAEL SWELL, Utah - Dick Manus has his hands full these days. The Bureau of Land Management field officer is in charge of the San Rafael Swell, a desert badland in southeastern Utah dominated by a 66-mile long and 35-mile wide wedgelike upthrust of multicolored sandstone - the remnants of an ancient seacoast.


Until recently, the Swell was an empty place. Bypassed by most westward-moving settlers, this geologic bubble punctuated by eroding cliffs and deeply carved canyons was too arid for most farmers and not green enough for most cows or sheep to graze. Sudden strong thunderstorms bring the occasional flash flood, but the earth dries quickly, and few of the canyons carry water year round. Prospectors have mined the Swell for over 100 years, but aside from a uranium boom in the 1950s, its mineral output has been small. It has largely been left alone.


Not anymore.


"There's definitely a feeling of more bodies on the ground, more dust in the air," says Manus, who oversees all land-use activities from the Price field office. Hikers, mountain bikers and off-road enthusiasts are descending on the Swell, spilling out from Moab's slickrock trails and the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.


So much for the good old days, when the Price office handled only a handful of mining claims, a few grazing allotments and the occasional lost tourist.


With a minimal budget and only one full-time federal patrol officer, the BLM now has a hard time managing competing recreational uses of the land. Signs are few and there are no visitor centers, but hundreds of dirt roads crisscross the spectacular landscape. One popular guidebook, locals say, regularly gets people lost.


Tourism can seem chaotic. Last Easter weekend, dozens of cars parked illegally and dangerously in a flash flood-prone wash near the trailhead for the popular Little Wild Horse Canyon hike. Groups of families set up tents and RVs in every flat area available, while children raced around their temporary camps on all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes.


So in February, when Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, introduced the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act, the Price field office was all for it. Increased federal designation, Manus says, "will put a more intense spotlight on the area," and he hopes the bill will help him obtain more federal funds and more people on the ground.


But in Utah, where the wilderness debate has been simmering for over two decades, the bill is contentious. Previous public-lands measures supported by Utah's congressional delegation set aside minimal wilderness and always failed; they were too restrictive for locals and not enough for wilderness advocates. The absence of wilderness designation in Cannon's bill raises a red flag for environmentalists, who found over 1 million acres in the Swell worthy of protection in their own bill, the Redrock Wilderness Act of 1999. But Cannon's bill has gained momentum.


Where's the wilderness?

Cannon's previous San Rafael Swell bill in 1998, aimed at pleasing everyone, satisfied no one, and eventually languished in Congress. Officials in Emery County, which encompasses the northern half of the Swell, were wary of the Clinton administration, which had used the Antiquities Act to declare the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. Meanwhile, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the state's powerhouse wilderness advocacy group, was gathering support for wilderness designation statewide. Utah county commissioners, angry and distrustful of the top-down approach, sat down with Interior Department representatives to draft a bill more acceptable to locals.


Once the skeleton of the legislation was hammered out, city councils, off-road vehicle groups and other interested parties in Emery County were asked for their comments and approval. The state BLM and the Price field office, which did not support the previous version, gave their blessing. In February, the bill was brought to Cannon's office. After a few minor language changes, Cannon introduced it, and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch followed up with a companion bill in the Senate.


The Swell bill will preserve some 286,000 acres now in wilderness study areas, but avoids designating any new ones - -wilderness with a big W," says Cannon. Instead, it establishes a 947,000-acre National Conservation Area in Emery County, with a management plan to be developed within four years, much like the process taken with Grand Staircase-Escalante. The conservation area will be closed off to new mining activity but will allow grazing and motorized use. ORV routes will be determined in the management plan. Although locals will be able to participate in the planning process, the Interior Department will have final say on the plan.


"This bill is less of a threat than wilderness," says Emery County resident Margaret Swasey, whose family settled the Swell, "and will very adequately protect the land."


Economic opportunities are important to the people of rural Emery County, 85 percent of which is publicly owned. The county is still heavily dependent on cattle ranching. Coal mines in Emery County still produce most of Utah's supply, and one coal-fired power plant south of Castle Dale employs 2,000 people.


"We hope to develop some kind of tourism-based industry to benefit local people," says Emery County Commissioner Kent Petersen.


Wilderness won't draw enough tourists to boost their flailing economy, locals say. The national conservation area created by Cannon's bill, on the other hand, comes with fewer restrictions and could provide that extra shading on the map that would sharply increase visitation and spending on local services. Since Emery County is off the beaten track - its towns hug the northwestern edge of the Swell - locals hope that increased federal designation will be useful free advertising.


A million dollars won't hurt, either. The bill will establish the San Rafael Western Legacy District, a federal designation aimed at promoting cultural and historical values. The legacy district carries with it an appropriation of $1 million a year for 10 years, enough to build visitor centers and interpretive signs. Controlled by a Legacy Council made up largely of state and county appointees approved by the Interior secretary, the district will be well-placed to receive funds from the appropriation to boost tourism.


"The core of the bill is looking at the area and trying to give visitors the best experience there is and still protect the area," says Cannon.


"There is a transformation in the West. Grazing is going out. Tourism is in."


ORVs wait and see

Dick Manus isn't trying to attract more visitors; he's working on managing the visitors that are already coming. In Utah, 11,600 all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, were sold last year, up 2,500 from the year before, and the craze shows no signs of slowing. The San Rafael Swell bill, Manus hopes, will bring much-needed federal dollars to adequately deal with surging off-road vehicle use - recreation that leaves long-lasting ruts across the Swell.


Because of the increased traffic, his office was directed to develop a travel plan in 1990, but "it just sat on the shelf like a bowl of Jell-O," he says. In the fall of 1999, the Price office finished a study of off-road vehicle use in the Swell's wilderness study areas. The study found that ORVs were traveling outside designated routes and causing significant damage.


In March, the BLM closed six of the seven study areas to motorized travel. Explaining the emergency closure to the annual Jeep Safari gathering in Moab, Manus reminded jeepers that motorized travel on the four remaining rights-of-way was allowed on a conditional basis.


He told them this was their last chance, "and if it doesn't work, the (closed) signs go up." The new legislation, he hopes, will add urgency to the travel plan.


The emergency closure woke up local off-highway vehicle groups to the possibility of stricter management. They are gambling that the bill will allow motorized recreation to continue. "It's like playing Russian roulette," says Mark H. Williams, owner of Castle Valley ATV Tours. "But I'd rather play Russian roulette with the San Rafael Swell bill than the alternative - wait and wait till the wilderness people engulf us and take everything."


To show their support for the bill and stave off wilderness designation, the SouthEastern Utah OHV Club, of which Williams is an active member, has pledged to help the BLM patrol the Swell. Club members have set up barricades near damaged areas, erected informational kiosks, put up signs indicating legal routes of travel and handed out vouchers for free ice cream to motorized users who obey the rules. Williams, who was asked for his ideas while the bill was being crafted, hopes to play a larger part in the management plan if he succeeds in winning a county commissioner's seat this year.


"We've got a chance to have some input with this bill," he says.


The county government, which maintains roads in the Swell and conducts all search and rescue operations, feels a sense of ownership of the Swell, and has also agreed to police ORV use if the bill passes.


"This is our backyard," says Emery County's Kent Petersen. "The land belongs to the people of the United States, but it is our backyard. And anything that affects recreation in this area affects the people of Emery County."


The political endgame

For the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, promises aren't guarantees. Specific regulation is left to the management plan, creating what SUWA sees as "a county playground for ORVs' in the interim. SUWA also fears that ORV damage will make areas in the Swell ineligible for wilderness consideration.


"If they're serious about solving the problem (of ORV damage)," says Larry Young, SUWA's new executive director, "there's a clear, concise way, and that's wilderness designation."


When Cannon's bill was introduced, SUWA sent out a flurry of direct mail, asking members to oppose the bill and urge their congressional representatives to support its Redrock Wilderness Act, designating 9.1 million acres in Utah as wilderness. But SUWA's bill is stalled in Congress, while Cannon's bill, "a blueprint for trying to circumvent wilderness," according to Young, is on a fast track.


The San Rafael Swell bill also has the staunch backing of the Clinton administration. Facing this, SUWA seems to have backed away from its mantra of no compromise, and active opposition to any piecemeal approach to land protection. Though not involved in initial negotiations, the group has recently jumped into the political battle over the bill.


"We're not working to kill the bill," says Young. "We're trying to work with members of Congress to bring it up to par."


The group is banking on two amendments from Democrats - one by Rep. Bruce Vento on ORV use, and one by Rep. Mark Udall on wilderness. Now SUWA's brochures and press releases urge members to call and support the amendments. If the amendments don't pass, SUWA pledges to return to its fervent opposition of the bill.


Former HCN intern Catherine Lutz reports from Paonia.




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