While Utah lawmakers on Wednesday listened to various state department chiefs outline the pains inherent in drilling for oil, grazing cattle and logging on federal lands, prosecutors filed criminal charges against five Utahns—including a San Juan County commissioner—in connection with an ATV protest ride.
The charges were filed against County Commissioner Phil Lyman and four other men who participated in a May ATV ride into the federally protected and archaeologically sensitive Recapture Canyon, near Blanding.
Lyman organized the ride to protest what he deemed unfair management of the canyon by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages roughly 70 percent of Utah’s land.
Lyman and his fellow four-wheeler riders were charged with a pair of misdemeanors, including conspiracy to operate off-road vehicles on roads closed to off-road vehicles and operating an off-road vehicle in a closed area. If convicted, the men could face one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
The Recapture Canyon protest ride took place on the heels of the dust-up with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and BLM officials. When federal authorities moved to seize Bundy’s cattle as payment for the more than $1 million he refused to pay in federal grazing fees, they were met by armed vigilantes.
The fervor surrounding federal management of land in Utah’s borders provides routine fodder at the state capitol, where some lawmakers have made it their top priority to convince the federal government that it should hand over much of the land it manages to the state.
To that end, members of the state legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee, received an update on the “impact of federal land ownership, intervention and policies.”
Kevin Carter, director of the State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), showed the committee a plot map that highlighted the four parcels his organization manages in many of the state’s townships which, in some stretches of the state, are surrounded by federal land.
He called it the “island nature in a sea of federal land that we find ourselves in often times.”
Carter warned the committee that federal regulators have taken aim at endangered plant life in waterways, and poked fun of the endangered prairie dog, saying federal officials have deemed a great number of things harmful to the dog, “almost to the point of looking at it cross-eyed.”
SITLA, a quasi-government organization that operates in a gray area between government and private business, was formed to manage land gifted to Utah by the federal government at statehood. The proceeds from any activity on this land are to go to the school children of Utah—the trustees of the land. As such, SITLA’s mission states that its primary objective is to make as much money off of these properties as possible.
Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said federal land use policies are “insane,” and that the feds are “locking up” his county.
He invited anyone who wanted to take a tour of what the BLM is doing to swing down. Hiking boots won’t be needed. He said he’ll take people around via “horseback, in a truck, walking—not very far walking.”
On additional wilderness designations in his county, he said: “Absolutely no more wilderness.”
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, chimed in with one comment: He urged state attorneys to hasten efforts to sue the federal government over the land so that the U.S. Supreme Court can once and for all rule on whether it’s Utah’s land, or if it does indeed belong to every American citizen.
“Until we get that say, we are going to continue this bickering back and forth,” he said.
But even with anti-federal government rhetoric running high, a report from Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee showed that in the Uintah Basin—Utah’s nest of oil and gas activity—the federal government has been leasing land at a rapid rate.
Along with having among the most toxic air quality in the nation, Uintah County is home to 11,000 active oil and gas wells, with 30,000 new wells proposed. In November, the BLM is set to auction off 27 parcels totaling 29,400 acres near the Green and White Rivers for oil and gas leasing. On Tuesday, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed an official protest in an effort to halt the lease operation on grounds that the land possesses wilderness qualities.
McKee said that if 20,000 new wells are drilled in his county, it could fill state money vaults with $123 billion in royalties—figures that don’t even count the billions and billions of barrels of oil corporations and politicians ensure can be strip mined by tar sands and oil shale developments.
In the end, it won’t likely be loss of clean air, drinkable water or human health that gets in the way of this development. It could be the endangered sage grouse, a bird that occupies wide swathes of Utah’s oil fields and that politicians are doing everything they can to keep off of the federal endangered species list.
“We’re working very hard to prevent the sage grouse from being listed in the state," Greg Sheehan, director of the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources, ensured the committee.