Public Lands Bill Reaches House of Representatives After 10 Years of Development

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By Ray Petersen

As this is being written, the Emery County Public Land Management Act has recently passed the Senate and is at the desk of the House of Representatives. We are told that is will be addressed “soon.” So, the outcome of this most recent effort by Emery County to fend off monument designation while maintaining control of traditional resource use is likely close to finality.

Reflecting on the past, recalling some of the events, dialogue and obstacles that have been part of the process to get to where we are today, I’m reminded of many, many, planning meetings and field trips, conference calls and flights to Washington to dialogue with our delegation and their staff. The 10+ years spent crafting this bill sometimes seems like forever and sometimes it seems quite brief. How does that happen?

At the recent early morning commission meeting, I was reminded of the cost of this endeavor of Emery County. As each commissioner spoke, to a full house, many of whom were in opposition to this legislation, it was clear that each commissioner had struggled to come to a position of continued support of the bill. The easier thing for each of them to do, especially on a personal level, would have been to discontinue support of this legislation. Should they have made that decision, there would have been much back slapping, “atta boys” and they would have been heroes……… of the hour. But each one also stated that in the big picture, for the benefit of the future of Emery County, they were supportive of continuing.

Former commissioners as well as past and present Emery County Public Lands Council members have faced this dichotomy as well. Doing the right thing is hard; it can hurt. This process has been tough on everyone involved, and the decisions have not been easy. There will be no end to second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking. Nevertheless, the duly-elected decision makers and their advisors have determined that the proposal was consistent with the original intent and were unanimous in support.

Earlier in the same commission meeting, Brock Johansen, Emery Telcom CEO and cattle farmer, shared his perspective on the issue of public land management. He reminded the audience that influence from organizations and politicians several generations ago were of such concern that his grandfather posted a sign east of Castle Dale warning of those who would impose unwise decisions on Emery County. Sure enough, Congress created the Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in 1983. And after a “reinventory” was completed in 1985, about twice as much more area was found to have “wilderness characteristics.” The Red Rock Wilderness Act was first introduced in Congress by Wayne Owens in 1989 and has been introduced in each congress since. This act in itself would designate 1.3 million acres of wilderness in Emery County alone. The dark cloud of extreme, politically-motivated, potential land use designation in the western US is not a new phenomena by any means.

Recent administrations have liberally applied the Antiquities Act in designating hundreds of thousands of acres as national monuments. Grand Staircase/Escalante and The Bears Ears are two examples close to home, but Presidents Clinton and Obama designated a combined 41 monuments.

All of us who have spent a lifetime enjoying the federal (public) land in our county lament days gone by when the Swell and the Green River Canyons were undiscovered; a time when I could ride my Honda 90 cross country and before another rider could show up and follow my tracks, they were washed or blown away; before “loving it to death” had any context; a time when there were no national organizations dedicated to “saving” the landscape from us knuckleheads who live here. And if you somehow stumbled upon Goblin Valley, you were the only ones there! In so many ways, things were just better in the 70s or the 50s or whenever in the past. But, that is the past. That is not the reality of today.

The need to manage natural resources, to make the best decisions for the resources, is the reason early settlers petitioned the federal government to for management and the National Forest System was created. And the Taylor Grazing Act was intended to create parameters for wise and proactive management of livestock and forage.

The strategy of using legislative designations to diminish the likelihood of something “worse” (a monument for instance) is relatively recent. Washington County was a kind of prototype and current commissioners there are glad they did it. It was probably a football coach, or armchair quarterback, who first coined the expression “the best defense is a good offense.” That’s where Emery County is right now. Hopefully, our offense is effective. I believe it will be.

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