Utah's wilderness warriors reply

  • Scott Groene

    HCN FILE PHOTO
  We’d like to thank High Country News for highlighting Utah’s redrock wilderness and recognizing the value of protecting this uncommon landscape. However, we disagree with some of HCN Associate Editor Matt Jenkins’ essay which criticizes Utah wilderness advocates based on an erroneous perception that there is a stalemate on Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness (HCN, 8/30/04: "W" in 2004: Taking stock of wilderness at 40). The effect of Jenkins’ advice would be to forgo the wilderness movement’s dreams of protecting big wilderness with a return to the old model of designating BLM lands under the Wilderness Act.

The old model entailed accepting the current political climate, no matter how hostile, and trading away areas already protected as wilderness study areas (WSAs) for smaller amounts of congressionally designated wilderness. Utah activists have rejected this approach, and chosen instead to transform the political climate through administrative and legal gains, as well as grassroots organizing.

This strategy has worked. Utah activists have won protection for roughly 1.5 million acres of non-WSA wilderness through the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the adoption by the agency of protective resource management and travel plans. This comes on top of the 3 plus million acres already protected by the BLM as WSAs. As a practical matter, roughly 4.5 million acres have meaningful protection.

Our gains have shifted the political reality in Utah. Not long ago, the Utah politician’s creed was "no more wilderness!" Last year, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt supported over 3 million acres of additional Utah BLM wilderness. And a Utah Association of Counties’ effort at passing anti-wilderness legislation stalled when some county commissioners recognized that any statewide bill for less than 3.2 million acres would fail, even with a Republican-controlled House, Senate, and White House. To put this in perspective, the anti-wilderness interests now support more wilderness than was proposed by a pre-eminent Utah wilderness organization 10 years ago.

If we had played the game according to the old model, we would have designated perhaps 75 percent of the WSAs, or 2.5 million acres in Utah, while sacrificing the remaining WSAs. The numbers mean little, but on the ground, this may have entailed selling out landscapes such as Fisher Towers, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, Granite Peak, Labyrinth Canyon and the Price River.

There is still plenty to do. In the short term, the biggest opportunity for gains will come through BLM’s ongoing resource management plan process, where BLM will decide whether to close 10 million acres of Utah BLM lands to energy leasing and off-road vehicles.

On the legislative front, SUWA remains fully committed to passing the 9 million-plus acre proposal, America’s Redrock Wilderness Act, but we are also looking for opportunities to pass legislation that protects portions of the pie without compromising the pie itself. For example, this year we worked with Utah Rep. Rob Bishop to move legislation through the House that would designate the Cedar Mountains Wilderness and protect twice the acreage of the existing WSA lands. We’re also participating in negotiations over wilderness in Washington County. Moreover, we’re supporting land exchange legislation that removes scattered sections of state land from inside our larger wilderness proposal. These smaller legislative gains, combined with administrative and legal advancements, will help build political momentum for the ultimate passage of America’s Redrock Wilderness bill.

Jenkins’ essay reinforces myths that are commonly repeated in the wilderness movement. Frequently not understood, for example, is that WSAs are legally as enduring as designated wilderness; both can be undone only by Congress. And although the Wilderness Act is the best legislative tool to protect wild places, it is not a magic solution for all woes. RS 2477 claims, overgrazing, existing oil leases and excessive nonmotorized recreation must be controlled through administrative and legal work.

Jenkins also argues that Utah activists should cut a deal now to designate small unthreatened areas because wilderness is "disappearing fast." But designating the few lands without any imaginable conflict does nothing for the canyons and mesas menaced by ORVs or energy development. It just diverts resources from protecting the threatened areas that truly need attention.

The Colorado Plateau took hundreds of millions of years to form and belongs to all Americans, including generations to come. It’s not our place to become impatient simply because times are tough. To protect the wildlife, the archaeology, the silence, and the big wilderness that takes days, not hours, to cross, we need to designate all that remains. And, inevitably, we will.

Scott Groene is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Matt Jenkins responds:

Yes, some 3 million acres of Utah wildlands are protected as WSAs, and another 1.5 million acres in the Grand Staircase-Escalante have "meaningful protection." But the White River, the subject of my essay, is representative not of WSAs, but of the unfortunate "lesser" realm of approximately 4.4 million acres of citizen-proposed wilderness, which lost protection following the 2003 settlement between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. For those lands, which make up nearly half of America’s Redrock Wilderness Act, real wilderness protection may be the only way to keep them — or even just a part of them — safe. And if the White River — one of the first areas directly threatened by oil and gas drilling after the wilderness settlement — isn’t one of the places "that truly need attention," what place is?