Will an illegal BLM study seal southern Utah's fate?

  • Crack Canyon in a Utah wilderness study area


I'm writing a book on the Colorado Plateau and it has been one of the joys of my life. The library work has been fascinating but the best research has been with a backpack and a boy.

Philip, then 13, and I headed out from Boulder, Colo., for southern Utah just after his classes ended, bound for one of the canyons that drape down from Cedar Mesa. A friend had told us of a perfect kiva, giving approximate directions. But as we hiked down into one of the twisty arms of the canyon, I grew apprehensive that we were looking for a needle in a haystack.

On our first two days, we found all manner of wonders - Anasazi rock art, small villages, a massive balanced rock, a fine swimming hole, and the constant companionship of the 1,000-foot-high, rose-colored canyon walls. But no perfect kiva.

The third day, we headed upcanyon with some spring in our calves. Now Philip was beginning to understand this place and where the Anasazi lived, on the high, south-facing ledges.

"Dad, isn't that a granary up there? Next to those junipers. See it?" I couldn't. My eyes couldn't see what his could.

We worked out way up the talus slope and along ledges. A hundred yards below, we knew from the granary (which even I could see now) and visible walls that we had found a good-sized village. Philip tore up the last stretch.

"Yes! Yessss! Dad! It's our perfect kiva!'

The roof of the subterranean prayer chamber was still intact, the ladder still in place. When we descended into this kiva, carved out of the sandstone some 800 years ago, we could see the old, bright colors - burnished red walls, with yellow and green pictographs. We spent nearly an hour there, wordless in this place where Anasazi fathers once instructed their sons.

This perfect kiva is embedded in Bureau of Land Management lands, which make up most of southern Utah. Nationally, BLM holdings have been the leftover, mostly ignored federal lands, until the past decade, when events converged to make the wild public lands of southern Utah the largest conservation issue in the country.

One source of the current Utah wilderness controversy traces to the end of World War II. The Southwest back then was a backwater of just 6 million people. But it was an ambitious backwater. Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City wanted much more wealth and growth. And they got it. The cities rode the Cold War defense expansion, and today the Southwest has 28 million people.

During the boom, the urban centers faced the central matter of how to get energy and water. They had already exhausted their local water. And coal-fired power plants near the cities would make the smog even worse.

So the cities reached into the interior West, the Colorado Plateau. Almost before anyone knew it, the Colorado Plateau was laced with reservoirs up to 200 miles long, power plants with stacks 70 stories tall, 500- and 345-KV powerlines spanning hundreds of miles, and uranium mines, mills and waste dumps.

In all, this Big Build-up - its heyday ran from 1955 through 1975 - was one of the most prodigious exercises of industrial might in history.

But finally its excesses became too much to stomach. Even with mammoth subsidies, the Big Build-up had become too expensive. These were objections to the unjust burden on the Plateau's Indian tribes, which suffered unfair coal and water leases and killing uranium operations.

The other reason was our realization that the Colorado Plateau is one of the most varied, magnificent places on the planet. This awareness led to the historic struggles over Dinosaur in the 1950s, Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon in the 1960s, and the Kaiparowits Plateau in the 1970s.

The new context led first to the creation of wondrous national parks in southern Utah during the 1960s. Canyonlands and Arches are perhaps the most notable. And with so much land savaged by the Big Build-up, sentiment grew to protect the key remaining BLM roadless areas from development as wilderness.

The nation's original 1964 Wilderness Act, however, did not include BLM lands. It was tacitly assumed they could not possibly qualify for wilderness.

But our love of these lands continued to build. In 1976, largely in response to citizens in the Southwest, Congress legislated a wilderness study of all BLM lands.

The first step was for each BLM state office to make an inventory of all roadless areas with wilderness characteristics. Then each state office was directed to study each area, hold public hearings, and recommend which areas should be declared wilderness.

All the state inventories proceeded according to law - except in Utah. BLM officials in Utah simply balked. Instead, the Utah BLM created a truncated and illegal inventory. In 1980, after just one year of study, the BLM eliminated nearly 20 million acres from wilderness consideration. Remaining were just 2.6 million acres (later increased to 3.2 million after appeals by Utah conservationists).

Then an unprecedented event took place. The Utah Wilderness Coalition, made up of state conservation groups, conducted its inventory, called Wilderness at the Edge. This remarkable citizen effort was - purely in terms of technical quality and consistency with the law - head-and-shoulders above the staff work done by the BLM. The study recommended 5.7 million acres as wilderness. But the bell couldn't be unrung: the lowball BLM inventory still skewed the process. In 1991, the BLM recommended just 1.9 million acres for wilderness.

The ensuing debate, of course, has been contentious in the extreme. Had the BLM done a conscientious job, or even a legal job, we would now have 5 million or so acres added to the wilderness and national parks systems. These are, after all, world-class lands. But it was never close. Instead, these public lands are now saddled by a proposal, wholly unprecedented in wilderness policy, put forth by a Utah delegation that has refused to listen to the majority of the people of Utah or of the nation.

Perhaps this bill will sail through. This particular Congress has been hard on the environment. The Utah delegation, especially Sen. Orrin Hatch, is well positioned. Still, my guess is that this proposal is in for some rough sledding, which may include substantial bipartisan opposition in the Senate, a filibuster, and a presidential veto.

For these are national lands, held open for all the people. The concern may rival the Alaska lands debate in 1980.

The deep errors in the original inventory have been compounded by this year's consultation waltz with county commissioners. People living near the public lands have always been heard, as they should be. But there has never been an abdication to the local level that remotely compares to the recent Utah hearings.

The economic issues have not been fairly presented. Every signal is that wilderness has a beneficial economic impact. In southern Utah, hardly a hammer hits a nail, or a batch of concrete is mixed, whether for a new restaurant, motel, home, or road, that doesn't result in some direct way from the area's natural beauty.

The bill itself is radical and unbalanced in many respects. The delegation proposal is a Christmas tree for anti-wilderness provisions. Motorized vehicles are permitted for a wide variety of purposes on all "roads," which would allow jeep, motorcycles, and other ORV use on the faintest tracks. Low-level military overflights are permitted. Dams, pipelines and communications antennas are allowed in four areas. Gas pipelines can go through the Book Cliffs. Protection under the Clean Air Act may be weakened. Nowhere are water flows protected.

Equally noteworthy are the 4 million acres in the citizen proposal that have been excluded. This includes lands near Zion, most of the San Rafael Swell, most of the Henry Mountains, and scores of wild areas. And Kaiparowits - one of the three or four largest undeveloped areas in the lower 48, "wilderness," as Ray Wheeler wrote, "right down to its burning core." What a lost opportunity, especially in a place already hit so hard by the Big Build-up.

As a final thrust, this bill, the most extreme wilderness proposal ever introduced, provides for "hard release." The areas not included in the bill - indeed, "all public lands in the state of Utah' - are released from wilderness study and permanently dedicated to "nonwilderness multiple uses." If this bill is passed, we will lose so many canyons, so many kivas.

Such an approach is so short-sighted, contemptuous of the eternal land of southern Utah, contemptuous, too, of time. The kivas were made so long ago, the sandstone ledges in which they are carved even longer. Time runs out into the future, too: Give our grandchildren, and those far down the line from them, the blessing of taking a daughter or son down into the weaving, rosy canyons, of finding their own perfect kivas, and of allowing the young person to see what the older person's eyes cannot.

Yet, perhaps this moment can become an opportunity. At least Utah wild lands will now receive broad public attention. Hopefully, that attention will begin to focus on the citizen proposal, which was done with more care, integrity, and foresight than any of the government efforts. We should use it as the benchmark. By doing that, and reaching out to all of the people, our generation can make a stand for our truest traditions and for the time that is embedded in redrock southern Utah like no other place on earth.

Charles Wilkinson is the Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water and the Future of the West.

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