As the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches Sept. 3, there is a temptation to talk about iconic places such as the John Muir Wilderness in California or the Bob Marshall in Montana. But out in the middle of a worked-over oil and gas patch south of Vernal, Utah, lies the White River, a gem that serves as a better emblem of the plight of today’s wilderness movement.
In 1985, local doctor Will Durant, oil and gas driller Doug Hatch, and machinist Clay Johnson gathered around Hatch’s kitchen table and worked out a wilderness proposal for 9,700 acres of spectacular canyon along the White River. This is a place that the landlord, the federal Bureau of Land Management, has never — to this day — leased for oil and gas development.
But the proposal got swallowed up. By the 1990s, with Utah politicians becoming increasingly anti-wilderness, the local Uintah Mountain Club turned for help to the Salt Lake City-based Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA expanded the White River proposal to about 19,000 acres; then it inserted it deep into the 9.1-million-acre statewide wilderness proposal it was trying to sell to a national constituency, over the heads of the Utah congressional delegation.
Much of the newly added land was already leased for drilling by a consortium of oil and gas companies. But for a few years, the White River and millions of acres of citizen-proposed wilderness throughout the West enjoyed interim protection provided by the Clinton administration’s Interior Department.
Then, in March 2003, the state of Utah resurrected a six-year old lawsuit challenging the federal government’s authority to protect lands that had been proposed for wilderness by citizens. Just two weeks later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt settled the case.
Suddenly, millions of acres of proposed wilderness across the West were vulnerable to drilling and other resource development. Around the White River, that opened the door to begin the permitting process for 15 wells. By the end of 2003, there was a palpable sense that wild places like this were disappearing all over the West. So on a cold and clear day last December, I met Uintah Mountain Club members Nancy Bostick-Ebbert, Paul Ebbert and Tom Elder in Vernal, and we set out in search of the original White River proposed wilderness.
For hours we ground away in four-wheel drive through axle-deep mud, lost in the maze of oil and gas service roads. Finally, we abandoned our vehicle at a well pad and walked down a dry wash.
Winding down into the depths of the river canyon, we entered a different world. Sphinx-like sandstone spires rose over a fringe of cottonwoods. The languid glide of the White River’s water, under a blanket of early winter light, mesmerized us as it flowed toward the Green River.
There was no need to explain why this small piece of the vast federal estate deserved protection. But 40 years after the Wilderness Act, places like the White River have disappeared inside schemes for wilderness that exist only in four-and-a-half pound citizens’ proposals. While they wait, wild lands are being whittled away by wells and roads.
We’ve been here before. Beginning in 1929, the Forest Service designated primitive and then wilderness areas on the national forests. But because the designations were administrative, they could be reversed by succeeding presidential administrations. In 1950, for example, the Forest Service decided to carve off a part of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first wilderness, for loggers.
This vulnerability led early wilderness champions like Bob Marshall and Howard Zahniser to campaign for the Wilderness Act. They wanted to ensure that Congress would have sole authority to designate wilderness. In the years since the Wilderness Act, Congress has never de-designated a single wilderness area.
It is time to treat each proposed wilderness area as a real, solvable problem. Instead of talking about keeping 15 wells out of a proposed wilderness on Utah’s White River, we need to talk about making that area official wilderness. There’s no reason why the White River can’t join the list of smaller, stand-alone proposals that are moving forward. They include Wild Sky in Washington, Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho, Ojito in New Mexico, and Tumacacori Highlands in Arizona.
None of the 15 wells now being proposed lies in the core of the White River, the 9,700-acre wilderness that Durant, Hatch and Johnson envisioned. Now could be the last chance to break it out of SUWA’s 9.1-million acre mega-proposal and try to convince Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, who represents the White River area, to take it to Congress.
It might be a wild idea. But after all these years of entrenched bitterness, it’s time for wilderness to find a home in Utah.