Greg Hanscom's excellent article in the July 22 edition of HCN gave readers an in-depth look into Utah's public-land politics ("Red Rock Resolution?"). I was particularly impressed by the description of how the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has operated. SUWA has reportedly been willing to compromise in order to achieve wilderness designation. But unlike public-land advocates in some Western states, the organization has so far been unwilling to allow Utah politicians to use wilderness designation to pass environmentally destructive provisions they would otherwise have trouble enacting into law.
That could change if Rep. Rob Bishop and the Pew Charitable Trust have their way. Bishop will only support more wilderness in Utah if a large area of public lands is opened to increased oil and gas development. In other words, we can protect some spectacular wilderness in Utah, but only if we facilitate accelerated climate change via development of dirty fossil fuels.
The potential Utah deal would be reminiscent of the one Nevada wilderness activists backed, made by Pew with Sen. Harry Reid. In that "compromise," a handful of small wilderness areas were designated and some public land was transferred to Las Vegas. It also cleared the way for a new pipeline to bring eastern Nevada groundwater to Las Vegas.
In his editorial on Hanscom's article, Paul Larmer suggests that such deals are a sign of "a maturing wilderness movement." Paul then quotes Pew's Ken Rait in support of the "let's make a deal" approach to wilderness. Neither Larmer nor Rait reveal that, beginning in the 1990s, Pew has used its money to effectively control the wilderness agenda of the environmental community. Among the "strategies" Pew insists upon when it gives grants is willingness to make the sort of political deals Bishop wants in Utah.
The wisdom of allowing a private foundation to set the agenda for the wilderness movement was not discussed. The stories also failed to mention that SUWA began taking Pew money in the early aughts and by the end of 2011 listed on its balance sheet "investments of over $3.5 million." In 2011, SUWA's executive director was paid $96,500, according to the IRS. Still, SUWA describes itself as "a small, locally based advocacy group" that has "remained a lean, issues-focused organization with low overhead costs." According to Wikipedia, at the same time SUWA's income was skyrocketing, membership declined 30 percent. Nevertheless, the organization still says that "about 80 percent" of its funding comes "from membership dues and donations."
If this deal is cut, it will likely be the result of the influence Pew has gained within SUWA and in the wilderness movement. It may be just coincidence, but the source of the Pew Trusts' $5.6 billion dollar endowment is the Sun Oil Company, aka Sunoco. It would be ironic if oil money convinced SUWA to make a deal that facilitates the development of dirty shale oil on Utah's public lands.