Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Utah’s wilderness soap opera – our take

8:36 am

We’d like to clarify matters after reading an op-ed by Governor Herbert’s spokesperson which included some strikingly rosy comments about the success of “county by county” wilderness proposals.  The governor was responding to criticism from outdoor industry leaders that his anti-wilderness activism threatens a significant piece of Utah’s economy.  We’ve been extremely disappointed by the governor’s false and unsupported claims that implementation of Secretary Salazar’s “wild lands policy” would harm rural economies.  Utah citizens – and the wilderness debate – deserve better.

Our governor and certain members of our congressional delegation, particularly Senator Hatch and Representative Bishop, have led a forceful charge against protecting Utah’s public lands.    So far they have done no permanent damage—in fact, just two weeks ago, a federal court shot down the governor’s effort to rip open an ORV route up Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park (although Utah citizens will still pay the legal bill for that failure).  But there are still many fights ahead.

Interestingly, most of our politicians now also say they value wilderness.  The paradox can be explained by their need to satisfy two constituencies: the tea party rabble that Hatch and Herbert will face at the convention and the majority of Utahns who support wilderness.

In the op-ed, the governor’s office championed eliminating the Department of Interior’s longstanding legal authority to protect wild lands, and suggested that the issue of protecting nearly-10 million acres of Utah BLM wilderness could be addressed through county wilderness bills instead.  The facts do not support this argument.

The specifics of what is happening are as follows:

Emery County- Here, we participated in discussions for two years.  But when ORV advocates successfully pressured the county commissioners into reneging on a deal to split the cost of a facilitator with us, it was obvious little good would happen, and we left.  A local group in Emery County has since created a proposal that is worse than the Bush management plans that we, the Wilderness Society and others are challenging in court.  We expect nothing will happen here.

Wayne County:  The county is sometimes mentioned as one where there is interest in a wilderness bill, but we are not aware of any public discussions taking place.

Piute County: We are part of discussions that are underway in Piute. This area is unique in both the relatively small amount of BLM wilderness land involved and the lack of conflicts between current uses and proposed wilderness (there are approximately 25K acres of proposed BLM wilderness).   The national forest lands are more significant and include the Tushar and Monroe Mountains (our friends at Grand Canyon Trust and Utah Environmental Congress are the lead advocates on forest issues).   We think agreement on wilderness should be possible here and we are ready to work hard with others to see that it happens.  But at best, this process would address far less than 1 percent of the total Redrock wilderness proposal.  We appreciate the work the commissioners have put into their proposal to this point and look forward to continuing refinements to it.

San Juan County: There is no public process underway of which we are aware.  The governor’s office declared there was an imminent “million acre” proposal.  If this is true, it’s the tainted fruit of some backroom deal—andwe’ve blocked over a dozen of these types of deals in the past.  We suspect the governor is really just repeating old gossip that predates the last election in San Juan County.

If it were true, would a “million acres” in San Juan county be a good thing?  To answer that question, we’d first need to see a map, and we are not aware that one exists.  Acreage alone is meaningless.  But for reference, San Juan County contains approximately 1.5 million acres of proposed BLM wilderness.  So the figure is smallish to begin with, even assuming it would all be BLM wilderness and not fragmented by a less-meaningful National Park wilderness proposal, for example.

We’d also check to see if it was riddled with cherry stems, which are off-road vehicle routes with wilderness on either side—but which fragment an area.   Politicians can create an impressive sounding acreage of wilderness with one hand, but then take it away with the other by inserting cherry stems that don’t affect the acreage but destroy the wilderness.

And with any wilderness bill, we’d consider whether it goes well beyond the lands already protected as Wilderness Study Areas.  The WSAs were supposed to cover all of the BLM lands that qualified, but in Utah the original surveys were deeply flawed and excluded almost two-thirds of the qualifying lands.

We’d also ask whether such a bill improves on the half-baked and uniformly dreadful Utah BLM land use plans released in the last days of the Bush administration.  These plans designated 20,000 miles of ORV trails with no real analysis of their unavoidable consequences–soil erosion, water pollution, and lost native plant and animal life.   For any bill to succeed, it has to improve dramatically on these plans, or the Redrock wilderness is better served by continuing the fight to improve the plans in court.

The governor— as well as other Utah politicians— has suggested the 2009 Washington County wilderness bill was a collaborative process that can be use as a model. In reality, it was not, and it should not.  We killed the first Washington County bill Senator Bennett introduced in 2006 because it failed to adequately protect wilderness.  In the next congress Bennett tried to enact a new and different bill over the objections of Senate Energy Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman and Redrock senate champions.  Bennett wrongly believed Majority Leader Harry Reid would help him roll these Democrats.  When Bennett’s gambit failed, he improved his legislation and forced the local county commissioners to accept concessions they’d never imagined, in order find success.  He’s been slamming SUWA ever since, because he knows well the role we played in this political fight.  Still, we credit him for both his perseverance and willingness to confront the county commissioners.  Both were needed to succeed.

Because the Washington County legislation was the result of a congressional fight, there has been no resolution there and we continue to push to protect areas omitted from the legislation.    We ended our opposition to the legislation when it was improved so as to be a step forward for wilderness.  However, there was never any agreement between us and Bennett or the commissioners that we’d end efforts to protect areas like Square Top or the canyons at the south end of Canaan Mountain.  And we have not.

The Washington County legislation took over 5 years, addressed less than 2 percent of the Redrock wilderness, and didn’t bring resolution.  It’s time to recognize this is not a helpful model.

The most important conservation victories in Utah have been controversial. A review of the history of Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National parks, as well as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shows that when all first gained administrative protection, Utah’s politicians ranted that economic disaster would follow.  And now, pretty much everyone agrees these were good ideas.  This is the history of conservation in the West, and there is no reason for it to end.

That said, we are willing to engage in wilderness discussions for smaller regions.  But, as the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized today, these discussions will succeed only if the Utah delegation and governor represent all Utahns, not just a handful of county commissioners (Rep. Matheson deserves credit for trying to include all interests in these discussions), and they recognize the national importance of these places as well.

Scott Groene

Utah Wilderness News, June 14, 2011

9:30 am

From a Utah: Utah public lands belong to all Americans

“It’s unfortunate that so many Utahns and most of our congressional delegation regard the pubic lands inside our state’s borders as belonging to us. They’re right of course, but the problem is that these lands belong to all Americans, not just to us Utahns.”  Letter-to-the-Editor – Standard-Examiner

Obama should not be willing to trade away land and water protection in budget deals

“Babbitt pointed to GOP policy riders in the April continuing resolution that kept the government open, one of which defunded an Interior Department program that would have studied federal land to determine whether they require legal protections. And Republicans lawmakers, he warned, still want to chip away at the president’s power to declare national monuments and to remove restrictions on the millions of acres protected as wilderness study areas, among other things. Which they might be able to do if those sympathetic to environmental concerns keep quiet about conservation during budget negotiations.”  PostPartisan Blog – The Washington Post

National monument designation in Utah at risk from new legislation

“Aimed at preventing a repeat of former President Bill Clinton’s creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah — a move that state leaders considered a stealth attack on Utah’s coal reserves and local control — the Utah Lands Sovereignty Act would require congressional authorization for creation of new monuments in the state. It essentially voids the president’s powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act, at least within Utah.”  Read more – The Salt Lake Tribune

Federal judge tells Fish & Wildlife Service to further review protection for rare wildflower

“The Graham’s penstemon range is narrow but happens to parallel some prime areas for oil shale development and oil and gas drilling, particularly in Utah. (A cousin of the plant, the rare Parachute penstemon, has been a key battle point in the gas drilling targeted for the Roan Plateau). Miller’s decision sends the issue back to USFWS for further review, which could lead to greater protection for the plant (and another hurdle for energy development in the Uinta Basin) when a final rule is issued in another year or so.”  Read more – Denver Westword


We need your help to protect Greater Canyonlands – Redrock Report May/June 2011

1:28 pm

Here’s what is happening this month with the redrock:
1.  Get involved with the Greater Canyonlands campaign!
2.  Did your members of Congress cosponsor the redrock bill yet?
3. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt speaks out
4.  Salt Creek Canyon is now protected after a major legal victory
5.  In a disappointing move, BLM abandons Wild Lands policy
6.  Look out for more anti-wilderness attacks this Congress

Get Involved!  Help us collect postcards in support of protecting Greater Canyonlands

People from across the country want to see Greater Canyonlands protected. To show that support, we have launched a campaign to collect signed postcards from ordinary American citizens who love our wild places and want the Obama administration to protect this stunning landscape.

Would you be willing to help out with this campaign?  Whether you think you might be able to collect 5 postcards or 500, any little bit will help!  To get involved, send an email to the SUWA grassroots organizer in your region:

In Utah: Deeda Seed,

In the Southwest: Terri Martin,

In the Northwest: Brooke Williams,

In the Midwest: Clayton Daughenbaugh,

In the East: Jackie Feinberg,

America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act reintroduced in the 112th Congress

This May, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) reintroduced America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R. 1916/S. 979), a bill that would protect over 9 million acres of spectacular Utah wilderness.  Currently, Sen. Durbin and Rep. Hinchey are joined by 74 cosponsors in the House and 9 in the Senate.  Of note are four cosponsors who did not sign on in the last Congress or are new to the House: Reps. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), David Cicilline (D-RI), Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).  Please thank your members of Congress if they have cosponsored the bill!

If your members of Congress are not on the list of cosponsors, please ask them to cosponsor America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act today!

“We need you to stand up to this assault as only the President can”

On the 105th anniversary of the Antiquities Act (the bill which gives the President the authority to designate national monuments on public lands), former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called on President Obama to lead us in standing up to the radical environmental agenda of the House of Representatives, stating, “The best way to defend the Antiquities Act is for the President to use it,” and, “The Wilderness Act is also in need of more vigorous advocacy from its friends, including the Administration.”

See our blog to read the full speech and please tell the Obama administration to take bold steps to protect Greater Canyonlands — a region that is in need of his leadership.

Major victory for Salt Creek Canyon!

On May 27, in a major victory for the Greater Canyonlands region, a federal judge ruled against San Juan County and the State of Utah in their bid to open an off-road vehicle (ORV) route in Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.  The route was closed over a decade ago to protect wildlife habitat and stop engine oil and grease from polluting the stream.  See our blog for more on this achievement.

Wild Lands policy shelved by Secretary Salazar

One day after President Obama proclaimed June 2011 as “Great Outdoors Month”, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a memo promising that the administration would abandon its Wild Lands policy after anti-wilderness members of Congress pushed to defund the policy in the Fiscal Year 2011 continuing resolution for the budget.

SUWA and our partners in the conservation community have vowed to work hard to ensure that the Wild Lands policy is funded again in the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, which begins on October 1.

In the meantime, please contact the Council on Environmental Quality (the President’s advisor on matters of environment, natural resources and energy) and let them know that this administration should get in line with past administrations, Republican and Democratic, and assert its authority to protect our last special places in Utah and across the West.

Congressional wilderness foes seek to undo longstanding land protections

How would you like to see existing protections removed for 43 million acres of America’s wild lands?

Under a new bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and in the Senate by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), nearly 7 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management would be released from their protective status, including 2 million acres in Utah. Thirty-six million acres of national forest land protected by the Roadless Rule would be released, and the newly-minted Wild Lands policy, which called for the BLM to inventory and manage for wild values on its lands,would be declared null and void. Finally, neither the Secretary of Interior nor the Secretary of Agriculture could reinstate policies to protect wilderness quality lands in the future. Basically, we as a nation would be done with protecting our fantastic places and focus all of our attention to exploiting them.

Though it’s called the “Wilderness Release Act of 2011,” a more accurate moniker for this environmental train wreck would be the “Wilderness Elimination Act.” This is a bill that’s supported by oil and gas industry groups and off-road vehicle clubs, but rejected by the millions of Americans who use and enjoy these places every year and see the legislation for what it is: an extremist, wholesale abandonment of some of our nation’s most precious resources in the name of short-sighted gains. Please contact your representatives and ask them to oppose congressional attacks on wilderness.

change.orgSign the petition to save Greater Canyonlands


Utah Wilderness News, June 13, 2011

10:09 am

The wilderness debt ceiling cannot be raised

“If I could make my case to President Obama, I would say that wilderness is the one debt ceiling we should never raise. We have already spent too much of our children’s inheritance to justify spending more. Most of the wilderness land in the West cannot be borrowed for oil, gas, and mining projects and returned because desert (mountain or lowland), once disturbed, cannot repair itself.”  Op-ed – The Salt Lake Tribune

Protecting public land is a political winner for Obama

“Yes, we understand the political pressures the president is under — ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Obama wants to be reelected in 2012, and he’s trying to avoid battles over environmental protections that some perceive as harmful to economic growth. But we agree with Babbitt, who pointed out in his speech that American voters support conservation, making it a political winner, not a loser. They’ll back a president who stands up for preserving public lands for the public.”  Editorial – Los Angeles Times

Former Secretary Babbitt gave Obama sound advice

“Mr. Babbitt also said President Obama should emulate President Bill Clinton, Mr. Babbitt’s old boss, who faced similar opposition after the 1994 Republican revolution but came roaring back. After wavering for a while, he seized the lead on conservation issues and threatened to veto all anti-environmental legislation. The public supported him; the Republicans retreated. It is sound advice.”  Editorial – The New York Times

Rep. Bishop mischaracterizes use of Antiquities Act

“The Antiquities Act was passed in 1908 so that presidents could act quickly to save exceptional public lands from threats such as oil drilling and mining. Waiting for Congress to act is not always a good option.”  Letter-to-the-Editor – The Washington Post


Unique Wild Flower Protection Restored

11:39 am

For Immediate Release: June 10, 2011


Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-428-3981
Meg Parish, Earthjustice, 303-996-9613
Megan Mueller, Center for Native Ecosystems, 303-449-4571
Tony Frates, Utah Native Plant Society, 801-277-9240

Unique Wild Flower Protection Restored
Judge rules that US Fish and Wildlife acted “capriciously” in claiming threats were no longer present

Graham’s penstemon

Graham’s penstomen, Image copyright Susan Meyer

Denver, CO — Yesterday US District Court judge Walker D. Miller sided with conservation groups and ordered the US Interior Department to reconsider a decision denying Endangered Species Act protection to the Graham’s penstomen, a wildflower found only in parts of Utah and Colorado.  Conservationists had earlier sought ESA protection but were turned down by the Bush administration.

The court ruled that the Bush administration decision not to list Graham’s penstemon as threatened was “arbitrary and capricious.”  The court reinstated the 2006 proposed rule to add Graham’s penstemon to the endangered species list and ordered the agency to make a new, final decision on the flower’s protection.

“The Graham’s penstomen is a unique and important part of eastern Utah’s natural environment.  This decision gives the Interior Department another chance to make the right call and protect this remarkable wildflower from oil and gas development, oil shale and tar sands development, and off-road vehicle use,”  said Stephen Bloch, Energy Program Director and Attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“The court’s decision makes it clear that FWS cannot set aside science and avoid full consideration of the multiple threats that incrementally push a species closer to extinction,” said Meg Parish, attorney for the conservation groups.

Graham’s penstemon is a strikingly beautiful wildflower in the snapdragon family that only occurs on oil shale outcrops in the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. The penstemon was first considered for Endangered Species Act protection in 1975, when the Smithsonian drafted the first list of plants to be protected under the Act. After nearly 30 years without action, and with drilling threats mounting, conservation groups formally petitioned the Service to protect the penstemon in 2002.

“This is great news for Graham’s penstemon. There’s widespread habitat destruction going on throughout Utah and Colorado’s Uintah Basin, the only area on earth this beautiful wildflower can be found.  The Fish and Wildlife Service will now have the chance to do what they should have done in December 2006 – give Graham’s penstemon the protection it needs under the Endangered Species Act,” said Megan Mueller, Conservation Biologist with Center for Native Ecosystems.

In today’s ruling, the court also found the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider the best available science showing the threat posed by oil and gas development, livestock grazing, and off-road vehicles.


In January 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to protect Graham’s penstemon under the Endangered Species Act after years of advocacy by conservationists.  Worried that this might slow down oil and gas drilling or oil shale mining, the Bureau of Land Management responded by assembling a “Penstemon ‘No Listing’ Team” which campaigned against protection.   In response, in December 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course and announced that threats were no longer present.  Earthjustice filed suit to challenge FWS’s decision on behalf of Center for Native Ecosystems, Utah Native Plant Society, Colorado Native Plant Society, and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in 2008.  The court’s decision yesterday recognizes that the Fish and Wildlife’s about-face was not justified by the facts.

Steve Bloch