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."

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