When the U.S. Department of the Interior recently released regulations that would establish procedures for state and local governments to claim road rights-of-way under the old RS 2477 law (HCN, 8/22/94), there was an immediate outcry from Utah's Sen. Bob Bennett, who said the proposed rules constituted "... a threat to the economy of virtually every county in the state."
As a member of the governing council of southeast Utah's Grand County, I guess I know something about the economy down here, and while I agree threats exist, I don't agree lack of roads is the problem.
Grand County is 95 percent public land; huge tracts are administered by the BLM, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the state of Utah; and most of this nationwide RS 2477 controversy arose in southern Utah where everybody knows we take our roads seriously. So if anyone is going to feel the effect of the proposed rules, we are. But we all know that there is a thinly disguised issue here that nobody wants to talk about - the politics of wilderness.
Claim a road, stop a wilderness. If we can upgrade a cattle track to a mining road, and then to a four-wheel drive/mountain bike recreation route, and then to a "highway," and we can show cattle tracks all over Grand County, then there are no roadless areas, and there is no wilderness. Presto. The anti-wilderness, sagebrush rebellion groups have found their spotted owls.
Rural Utah is faced with many problems. Hard-rock mining is defunct. Agriculture gets a little more marginal every year. Here in Moab, tourism has become the mainstay of our economy, but it has brought with it new problems of growth management, low-paying jobs with no low-cost housing, inadequate services.
Our economic challenges will not be resolved unless Congress and the state of Utah recognize that we can't fund by ourselves all of the public needs of a national playground - needs like landfills, health care, sewer and water systems, and land-use planning.
Here's my challenge to the Utah congressional delegation: Wilderness per se is politically unpopular in southern Utah, so designated wilderness has been stymied. On the other hand, Utah's state and federal legislative representatives can't seem to secure adequate funding to help us keep Grand County's federal-lands playground solvent. Why not give in to the current Utah wilderness proposals that have nationwide support in return for more funding for sparsely populated gateway communities like Moab?
Make a deal in Congress. The real threat to our economy is not Interior's proposed rules nor is it designated wilderness. It's the threat of a broken-down county hospital because local funding can't satisfy all the needs of the mushrooming tourism boom.