New route to end Utah's wilderness stalemate

Can one of the West's most anti-federal lands lawmakers broker a mega-wilderness deal in the Beehive state?

  • The proposed Indian Creek Wilderness, on the east side of Canyonlands National Park, where San Juan County has proposed a new ATV right of way.

    James W. Kay
  • Utah Rep. Rob Bishop displays a map showing federal land ownership, during a 2012 news conference at the Utah State Capitol to laud the Legislature for its effort to take control of millions of acres of federal lands. Sen. Orrin Hatch looks on.

    Steve Griffin/Salt Lake Tribune
  • Hiking in the proposed White River Wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • An Anadarko drill rig in the Greater Natural Buttes area of the Uintah Basin.

    Anadarko Petroleum Co.
  • Off-road enthusiasts gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City in 2011 for the Take Back Utah rally, where Gov. Gary Herbert called for renewed vigor in the fight to keep broad access to Utah's public lands.

    Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News
  • Dust rises near Factory Butte, an area just outside the San Rafael Swell that's a favorite of off-roaders and that SUWA and others hope to get designated as wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • Houses creep into the foothills around St. George, Utah. Washington County commissioners used wilderness lands as a bargaining chip to win more ground for subdivisions and shopping malls.

    George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Canyoneering in White Canyon, a proposed wilderness area in the San Juan-Greater Canyonlands part of eastern Utah.

    James W. Kay

On Feb. 15, 2013, Congressman Rob Bishop, a Republican from a deeply conservative stretch of northern Utah, sent a letter to groups representing environmentalists, oil and gas companies, off-road vehicle users and others, announcing his plan to end the state's decades-long wilderness war.

The missive didn't specify what was at stake -- millions of acres of jaw-dropping red-rock desert, lands that hold riches in oil and gas, and that, if opened to off-road riding, could be a motorhead's Disneyland -- but the battle-hardened recipients needed no reminder. Conservationists have long wanted these lands protected forever, but dozens of wilderness bills have gone down in flames, thanks to people like Bishop, who blocked any legislation that would "lock up" Western land.

Now, Bishop claimed he wanted to turn over a new leaf. "I believe Utah is ready to move away from the tired arguments of the past," he wrote. "We have a window of opportunity to end the gridlock and bring resolution to some of the most challenging land disputes in the state."

He asked each group to list its priorities for eastern Utah's public lands -- wilderness protection, energy development and everything in between. His plan wouldn't cover the entire state, but it would include some of Utah's most spectacular and contested landscapes, including the area around Canyonlands National Park, the San Rafael Swell, the Book Cliffs and Desolation Canyon -- 5.5 million acres that conservationists believe are worthy of wilderness protection, plus the energy-rich Uintah Basin.

"I look forward to working with you as we move into the next phase of this critically important endeavor," Bishop concluded. "I ask that you please provide your list of priorities via email … no later than March 15, 2013."

One month to lay the groundwork for resolving a war that had been raging for a generation, from Washington, D.C., to the Statehouse in Salt Lake City, inside county commission chambers and out on the sand and slickrock.

To many of its recipients, the letter seemed to drop out of the sky. The rhetorical battle between conservationists and state leaders, and between Utah's elected officials and the federal government, had recently boiled over for the umpteenth time. Led by chest-thumping states-rights advocate Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah was suing the feds for control over 19,000 miles of rights of way across public lands -- a blatant frontal attack on proposals to protect those lands as wilderness. If that wasn't enough, Herbert and the state Legislature were pouring millions of tax dollars into a dubious campaign to take control of 22 million acres of federal land, arguing that it had been stolen from the state, which they insisted could do a better job of managing it anyway.

Conservationists, in turn, had taken their cause to a friendly Interior Department, asking officials to provide temporary protection for a 1.4 million-acre bulwark of mountains, sandstone spires and river canyons surrounding Canyonlands National Park, and to initiate a public process to explore long-term protection. Internet chat boards lit up with chatter about the "Greater Canyonlands conspiracy" and bitter reminders of the last "federal land grab" in Utah in 1996, when President Clinton designated the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a move that still chafes many locals.

The Outdoor Industry Association and more than 100 gear companies threw gas on the flames when they sent President Obama a letter urging him to use his executive powers to protect the area as Greater Canyonlands National Monument. In Moab, furious off-road vehicle enthusiasts and self-proclaimed Sagebrush Rebels organized a boycott of businesses that supported the monument. The backlash was so vitriolic, says one local mountain-bike tour operator, that "there were a couple of weeks there when I was worried about my son wearing his Patagonia coat to school."

Bishop had made no secret about where he stood. When an Obama administration plan to provide temporary protection for the state's wild lands came to light in late 2010, he howled that it was the work of "far left extremists who oppose the multiple uses of our nation's public lands." A longtime critic of federal environmental laws, and federal power in general, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that conservationists and the outdoor industry were "trying to do an end-run around what is good for Utah."

But here he was, just a few months later, holding out an olive branch, promising to put an end to the fighting.

If you want to understand the fragile détente currently being negotiated in Utah, take a trip to St. George, in the southwest corner of the state. It wasn't all that long ago that the town was a sleepy Mormon backwater -- "Utah's Dixie," as locals called it, because the area's earliest Mormon pioneers, lead by Robert Dockery Covington, a Southern slave owner, hoped to grow cotton here.

The old town center has survived -- the original Mormon temple, hewn from tawny native sandstone, the wide, well-tended green, and Thomas Judd's general store, established in 1911, where you can still buy Judd's famous breadsticks with cheese sauce. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, St. George and the rest of Washington County exploded. For a while, it was among the fastest growing counties in the U.S., as Vegas-style suburban development sprawled into the desert east, south and west of town.

Today, the county's population has topped 140,000. The old town center is surrounded by a sea of clay-tile roofs tucked behind iron gates flanked with burbling fountains -- housing developments with names like Sedona Hills, Artesia Terrace and Lakota Ridge.

But north of all this, flame-colored cliffs rise like a dragon's back -- and much of that land is protected as wilderness. To the northwest, Red Mountain, a buttress of sandstone the color of dried blood, rises 1,500 feet straight out of the subdivisions. To the northeast, Cottonwood Canyon snakes through domes of Navajo sandstone. These wilderness areas are bound together by the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, a 45,000-acre swath of land that is jointly managed by federal, state and local governments to protect the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and other wildlife.

The deal that protected that land was born in the early 2000s, largely out of frustration. For 20 years, conservationists, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), had fought to pass a mammoth statewide wilderness bill. They'd scoured the state for lands worth protecting, ratcheting up their proposal to cover 9.4 million acres and building a national following in the process. But without support from Utah's congressional delegation, the proposal foundered time and again. In the absence of a resolution, the players resolutely stuck to their roles: SUWA fought to protect wild areas with lawsuits and executive action from allies in the White House, while anti-wilderness interests punched back with claims that the counties held rights of way across many roadless areas.

Even as Utah was mired in a stalemate, however, other Western states were negotiating deals over smaller-scale, locally generated wilderness bills. Utah's then-governor, Olene Walker, took notice and approached the state's county commissions, asking for volunteers for a first Utah attempt. Washington County jumped.

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