Wilderness by committee

Federal land protection is all about dealmaking

 

Several weeks ago, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and nouveau sagebrush rebel, made public an internal Interior Department draft concerning Western places that "may be good candidates for National Monument designation under the Antiquities Act." Bishop was furious, as were many rural Western lawmakers, for in that document they heard echoes of President Bill Clinton's "War on the West," when he used his executive powers to establish new national monuments, placing big chunks of public lands off-limits to gas drilling, off-road vehicles, grazing, coal mining and all kinds of other God-given rights.

On the new list was Cedar Mesa, a big swath of canyon-carved piñon and juniper country in southeastern Utah's San Juan County. It was hardly surprising when the San Juan Record reported that the county commissioners -- who have a long tradition of warring with the feds -- were up in arms. More remarkable was one of their reasons: They didn't want any national monument designation to screw up their own land bill, which would  include new wilderness, believe it or not, right there in San Juan County.

It was enough to give wilderness-lovers hope: If San Juan County could utter the W-word, anyone could. Add to that no less than a half-dozen wilderness proposals that have been introduced or are on their way to Congress, and it seems that greens could make up for some of the time lost during the Bush years, when only about 2 million acres of wilderness were designated, compared to the 9.1 million acres protected under Clinton.

Still, that hope is tempered by some new and harsh realities. These days, if you want to protect an area as wilderness, you'd better be prepared to come to the table and deal with an increasing number of stakeholders, some of whom cynically see wilderness as nothing more than a bargaining chip. And, sadly, there's less land available to fight over. Gone are the days of grand, sweeping wilderness designations.

Take the 379,000-acre Hidden Gems proposal in central Colorado, which was formally proposed this month. In total acreage, Hidden Gems rivals Colorado's biggest wilderness, the Weminuche, which was designated in 1975. (Originally around 400,000 acres, it's now about 500,000 acres.) But the Weminuche is a single, contiguous piece of land, while Hidden Gems is a hodgepodge of 40 modest-sized chunks, surgically sliced out of the landscape to avoid offending anyone. Proponents got some ranchers on board, who asked that even more land be added, although not necessarily from selfless motives: They were hoping to bar mountain bikes and ORVs from their federal grazing allotments. Some mountain bikers oppose the plan, and the American Motorcyclist Association roused its members to protest vehemently; one Web site commenter called Hidden Gems and the like "a genocide against motorized users across America." 

Back in Utah, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett is spearheading the still-nascent San Juan County land bill. He sponsored a similar effort in Washington County that established wilderness -- much of it on already-protected national park land or in wilderness study areas -- in exchange for the selling off of public land. Conservationists were initially furious, but before the deal passed in 2009, they managed to increase the wilderness acreage and decrease the sell-off acreage.

The San Juan County commissioners admit that their newfound green-ness is mostly just an attempt to avert national monument designation. "We knew we had a big target on our backs," says County Commissioner Bruce Adams. "We figured it was better to be proactive than to take a beating." They won't give specifics on what they plan to ask for, but it's clear that it will be worlds away from what the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance proposes as part of its 9.4 million-acre Red Rocks Wilderness roads and proposal. That would cut off dozens of ORV routes --legitimate and otherwise -- something San Juan County won't accept without a fight. They're likely to offer wilderness only if it is "cherry-stemmed" by existing "roads." And some 7,700 miles of county roads criss-cross the landscape, leaving little room for wilderness.

In return, San Juan County says it just wants to be left alone. "Our hope is that once this land bill is accepted by Congress, it will lay to rest any more designations of any kind in San Juan County, Utah," says Adams. "We're not going to expand parks, not going to make any more wilderness areas, not going to close roads, not going to limit access. This is it."

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...