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Know the West

A new day dawning?


At times, it seemed that peace would never break out in southern Utah. At least not when it came to wilderness. As Jim Stiles, a long-time chronicler of Utah wilderness battles, wrote in an HCN opinion piece last year, "Bullheadedness is what defines both environmentalists and those locals who'd rather see coal mining or oil and gas drilling as the basis of an economy" than tourism.

Nine Mile Rock ArtBut there's a curious trend afoot in canyon country these days: compromise. We took note last summer when the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a notoriously hard-nosed, litigious group, cut a deal with oil and gas giant Bill Barrett Corp. over a controversial drilling proposal on the Tavaputs Plateau in southeastern Utah. The unusual give-and-take left some SUWA supporters scratching their heads. So the group posted an explanation on their website: "Why SUWA Decided to Compromise with the Bill Barrett Corporation on the West Tavaputs Plateau." Among the reasons they gave was this: "We decided to engage with BBC in the hope that we could reach an outcome more favorable to wilderness protection in this area than could be accomplished through protracted legal battles." Not insignificant words from a group with a reputation for never having seen a protracted legal battle it didn't like.

Skeptics may have written that deal off as an anomaly, never to be repeated. But SUWA and a couple other environmental groups were back at it this month, this time finding common ground with Enduring Resources, another gas company, over a drilling plan for the Uinta Basin

Still skeptical that a new day will ever dawn in Utah's disputed wild grounds? Wait! There's more! A wilderness deal in San Juan County, "thought dead or dying last year when Utah Republicans booted former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett from office," still has a heartbeat, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. In discussing it, a county commissioner even doled out a bit of praise for The Wilderness Society to the Trib's reporter: "Their vocabulary is not limited to a two-letter word: ‘No,’ ” Lynn Stevens said.

Of course, there is still plenty of fightin' to be had in Red Rock country. Utahns brought an early legal challenge against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's wild lands order, which ordered the BLM to inventory public land for "wild" designations (read: no ATVs, no drilling). And Utah politicians fanned the flames of local fury: Rep. Rob Bishop, R, dubbed the order a radical job killer and "an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple uses of our nation's public lands." Congress obliged his and other Westerners' displeasure by defunding the wild lands initiative when they passed the budget bill. 

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Image of rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, courtesy of Ken Lund. Licensed under Creative Commons.