Off-roaders torpedo a wilderness alternative

When it comes to protecting land, Utah knows only deadlock

  • SWEATING THE SWELL: Utahns can't seem to decide what to do with the San Rafael Swell near Price, Utah

    Kelly Rigby, BLM
  • San Rafael Swell locator map

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The wild card."

SAN RAFAEL SWELL, Utah — Randy Johnson spent two terms as an Emery County commissioner working to keep "capital W" wilderness out of this isolated Bureau of Land Management desert. But don’t mistake him for another belligerent "anti." The San Rafael Swell is an 80-mile long upheaval of sandstone that rises eerily from the monotonous central Utah desert, 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. This surreal landscape of chiseled canyons and eroding cliffs has long been targeted by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) for federal wilderness protection (HCN, 12/25/95: Utah hearings misfire).

To Utah’s county leaders, wilderness has long represented the bogeyman of federal power. But as off-road vehicle riders, mountain bikers and hikers increasingly flocked to — and clashed in — the Swell, Johnson recognized that some sort of protection was needed. Hoping to dodge wilderness designation, he went in search of a local alternative — one he hoped would continue to offer easy access for off-road vehicles, and give locals a stronger say in management decisions.

"We wanted to create a large-scale collaborative effort at the grassroots level that included a very diverse mix of interests," says Johnson. But that has proven to be more easily said than done. The lesson from the San Rafael Swell is that any call to protect federal land in Utah — as wilderness or otherwise — can send the state into a tizzy.

Groping for a local solution

In the late 1990s, Johnson and the Emery County Public Lands Council — a group of county officials, business owners and private citizens — lobbied Congress to turn the Swell into a national conservation area — a title that comes with far less stringent protections than wilderness (HCN, 5/22/00: Stirrings in the San Rafael Swell). That effort died in the face of strong opposition from environmentalists, but two years ago, Johnson decided to try a different, and unusual, tack. He and other county officials approached Utah’s Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt with the idea of rallying local support for a new national monument. The tourism generated by a monument would add a bit of diversity to the county’s mostly coal-mining dependent economy — and, of course, leave open the possibility of continued access for off-roaders.

Leavitt saw Johnson’s pitch as a way of mending the decades of distrust that many rural Utahns feel toward the federal government. Few federal actions have stoked that resentment more than President Clinton’s surprise use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 (HCN, 9/30/96: A Bold Stroke: Clinton takes a 1.7 million-acre stand in Utah).

When Leavitt announced in his January 2001 State of the State speech that he would ask President Bush to designate a 620,000-acre national monument on the San Rafael Swell, he took pains to distance himself from Clinton. He called the new proposal "the product of seven years of intense negotiations involving many stakeholders."

President Bush quickly stated that he would support the "grassroots" proposal, but just like Clinton, Leavitt caught almost everyone by surprise. There had been years of stakeholder discussion, but little mention of a monument. "We were pretty much ambushed," says SUWA’s conservation director, Heidi McIntosh. Off-road vehicle users were livid. "They shouldn’t have been talking about it in January like it was already decided," says Mark H. Williams, president of the Southeastern Utah Off-Highway Vehicle Club. "They had plenty of time to get everyone on board." Williams and his group collected enough signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would allow county residents to weigh in on the monument — and although the referendum was nonbinding, Leavitt promised to take the vote to heart.

In the weeks before Election Day, off-road vehicle groups from around the country poured money into the anti-monument campaign. Emery County officials defended the proposal, but they were largely left on their own. Leavitt made only a single brief stop in the county to drum up support for a monument. Shortly before the election, SUWA finally came out in favor of the monument, but the group made it clear it would continue to push for 1 million acres of wilderness in the Swell.

In the end, the referendum died by 268 votes, while the monument’s champion, Randy Johnson, lost his bid for a third term on the county commission by a similar margin.

The slow road to protection

For now, the Swell remains in the land-management limbo it’s been in since the 1960s. In February, the BLM released a long-anticipated travel plan for the Swell that closes about 40 percent of the 1,145 miles of off-road vehicle trails in the area. So far, both environmentalists and ORV-users seem to support the plan.

The BLM says it will continue working closely with county officials and interest groups on an updated management plan the agency hopes will lay the foundation for whatever special status might eventually come down the pike. "I don’t think anyone should misinterpret a referendum that passed by less than 270 votes (as meaning) that the locals don’t care about the Swell," says BLM spokesman Don Banks. "They care deeply about the place."

Meanwhile, SUWA continues to push its 9 million-acre Redrock Wilderness Bill, which has been inching through Congress in one form or another since the late 1980s. Like almost everyone else involved, McIntosh believes some sort of special status for the Swell is just a matter of time. "And we’re going to continue to push for wilderness," she says.

Even the off-roaders in Emery County seem to have accepted some wilderness as an inevitability. "I think everyone has to have a part of it," says the Off-Highway Vehicle Club’s Williams. "I think there should be wilderness, and I think there should be multiple-use areas."

Support for a monument from the governor’s office has evaporated, however. In a December editorial, the Salt Lake Tribune criticized Leavitt for failing to ease local fears when the going got contentious. But Johnson, the former county commissioner, is reluctant to blame the governor.

Just as he faults environmentalists for blocking the national conservation area proposal, he puts the blame for this latest defeat squarely on the shoulders of off-road vehicle groups. "To be stopped in midstream was a huge disappointment," he says. "I think Emery County took a huge step backwards."

The author writes from Salt Lake City, Utah. He can be reached at [email protected]

You can contact ...

      Governor Mike Leavitt’s office, 801/538-1000,;
      Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801/486-3161,;
      Southeastern Utah OHV Club,;
      - Emery County Commissioners, 435/381-2119,
High Country News Classifieds