Contrasting views on how public lands should be managed and enjoyed collided in a congressional committee hearing Thursday as distinct lines were drawn over whether more than 9 million acres of red-rock landscape in Utah's outback should be protected as official wilderness or left open for off-road vehicles, mountain bikes, and energy development.
After languishing for decades, the Red Rock Wilderness Act received its first congressional hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. As expected, Utah officials lined up to criticize the legislation, which would set aside 9.4 million acres, much of it wrapping Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The landscape in question ranges from sagebrush-studded high desert and rugged mountainscapes to delicately sculpted canyonlands, from surprisingly lush riparian areas to rippled sand dunes that shift with the winds. Many areas hide vast and rich paleontological burial grounds as well as archaeological remains and artifacts from thousands of years ago. Delicate rock-art drawings are hidden away in alcoves; those that are not often become targets for would-be sharpshooters. Hawks wheel in the skies overhead, rattlesnakes and lizards slither and skitter across the landscape, while mountain lions and ringtail cats can be found here, too, as can delicate and rare wildflowers. To many it's a mesmerizing and beautiful landscape that should be protected. Others see it as a wasteland with no intrinsic values.
Neither the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a long-time proponent of the legislation, nor federal land managers are highly viewed by many in Utah, and the prospect of creating wilderness that would be off-limits to energy development, off-road vehicles, and even mountain biking raises many hackles in the state.
"The bill, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York, is not supported by a single member of the Utah delegation. The amount of land proposed for this designation is overwhelming — it is the approximate equivalent of the size of the State of Maryland," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in prepared comments presented to the subcommittee. "The State of Utah recognizes that the lands proposed for wilderness designation by this bill, lands that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, are owned by the American people. However, we also find this proposal is, and always has been, an unrealistic and unvetted allocation of the natural resources of this great State. The proposal has not been presented by the sponsor to the many stakeholders in this issue, particularly the rural citizens who feel so passionately about the matter. Nor has the sponsor sought to balance the laudable goal of preserving our stunning scenic resources against the nation’s needs for wildlife conservation, recreational pursuits, and energy."
While Robert Abbey, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that manages the lands in question, told the committee that many of the lands targeted by the legislation were "extraordinary, with unmatched wild land resources," he said the BLM has not closely reviewed each acre in question to determine its qualifications for wilderness designation. Beyond that, he, too, noted the contentiousness of wilderness designation in Utah.
"We also know that some of the areas proposed for designation present serious challenges because of existing and conflicting uses. For example, recreational use has exploded on public lands throughout the West, including in southern and eastern Utah. While many recreational activities, such as hunting and hiking, are compatible with BLM wilderness designation, others, such as mountain biking and OHV use, are not," Mr. Abbey said in his prepared comments. "OHV use, either in designated motorized use areas or on designated road networks, also presents serious conflicts in a number of wilderness areas proposed in H.R.1925, including Goldbar Canyon (section 104 (b)(8)) and Duma Point (section 108 (b)(5)). About 70 percent of the proposed Goldbar area is within BLM's Gemini Bridges/Poison Spider Mesa Backcountry Motorized Touring Focus Area; as many as 800 vehicles per day access this area. Similarly, we estimate that over 21,000 OHVs use the Duma area annually."
But in urging the subcommittee to support the legislation, Rocky Anderson, Salt Lake City's former mayor, not only invoked the word's of renowned conservationist Wallace Stegner but also touched on the growing popularity of low-impact recreation as well as on climate change and how off-road vehicles can contribute to it by disturbing soils that are blown away by storms only to settle on higher elevation snowfields, where they hasten melting.
"In 1960, Wallace Stegner, a westerner and former Utahn, articulated the imperative for wilderness with these words:
'Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste,'" said Mr. Anderson.
"Those in Utah who resist protection of these places should take a clue from the visitors to our state who come to Utah, and keep coming back, because they are in awe of the geography they find there. Where else in the world can you go from the inspiring granite peaks of mountains like the Wasatch to the red-rock splendor of the San Rafael Swell in a four-hour drive? The beauty of the landscape is an astounding resource for Utah that sets it apart from most other places in the world, providing Utahns remarkable opportunities for outdoor recreation and serving as a magnet for tourists from other parts of the country and world," he added a bit later.
Mr. Anderson also pointed out that even if all 9.4 million acres were protected as wilderness, there still would remain "17,000 miles of dirt roads, jeep trails, and old mining tracks for off-road vehicle enthusiasts to enjoy on BLM lands on the Colorado Plateau. That figure does not include all trails in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Those who say we are 'locking up the land' and no one will have access to it except for backpackers and horse-packers should understand that they will have access too because 70% of the land proposed for wilderness designation within America's Red Rock Wilderness Act is within eight city blocks of a motorized route."
Not sharing Mr. Anderson's views was John Jones, a Carbon County, Utah, commissioner who said the bill would "place a nail in the coffin for rural Utah communities and render impossible any long‐term economic opportunities for the people in our counties who are surrounded by government‐owned land and whom we were elected to serve and represent."
"The idea that SUWA and its lackey, Mr. Hinchey, represents the voice of rural Utah is like saying King George III represented the American colonists on issues of taxation—it just isn’t so!" Mr. Jones added. "Our people have asked, how is it that a wilderness bill offered by a New Yorker on behalf of SUWA is treated seriously by this Committee when a BLM RMP (Resource Management Plan) developed locally over the course of seven years through a legitimate public involvement process is thrown out by our own Administration, thus squandering employment opportunities for our people in the process? This is not what we elected President Obama to do. Things here in Washington, D.C. are seriously off track. This bill threatens the very survival of rural Utah.
"We support reasonable protections for all public lands and wilderness designation when necessary to protect truly outstanding national treasures in their pristine state. However, the proposed Red Rock Wilderness bill targeting Utah would devastate our local economies even more so during this economic recession and at a time our country should be moving away from foreign energy. Moreover, the vast majority of the lands covered by the bill would actually suffer environmental degradation if subjected to leave‐it‐alone wilderness style management regimes. When the lands are not managed they are fire prone and lose their usefulness for razing, wildlife, watershed and recreation," he said.