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Monumental Concern

Would San Rafael National Monument save or destroy the region?



The New Year was already feeling like an old injury to some citizens of picturesque Emery County. Flared by the cold and wet, like an injury, it was a reminder of the better times that had come before it. Residents of this sparse, east central Utah county were witnessing Gov. Mike Leavitt during his televised Jan. 28 “State of the State” address, saying that he would ask President Bush to declare the San Rafael Swell, encompassing much of their county, a national monument. Since then, rumors of such a “federal land grab” escalated in this rural area, and the truth has been hard to get at since.

Some were dumbfounded to hear the governor say that the monument request was the product of “seven years of intense negotiations involving many stakeholders” as opposed to the “stealth proposal” Bill Clinton used when creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in nearby Garfield County. Leavitt asked Emery County commissioners, who were present at the speech, to stand once he’d made the announcement. “I salute your boldness,” he said.

But not all watching were willing to salute the governor for proposing the designation of the monument in the sandstone marvel that is the San Rafael Swell. Some surmised that the commissioners were unwilling and shocked participants in the night’s events. Paul Conover, associated with the newly established Castle Country Rural Alliance, heard that the commissioners, “were all wanting to run down there and grab the mic and say wait a minute,” when the announcement was made.

But Randy Johnson, chairman of the Emery County Commission, explained that the board was, indeed, in support of Leavitt’s plan that night. “We were the ones who asked the governor to make the request of the president,” said Johnson. “It was not the governor’s idea, it was ours.”

The commission had told the governor he was free to mention the proposal in his “State of the State” address if the idea had received public support in the commission’s scoping meeting. Residents who came to the meeting “had a lot of questions and had a lot of apprehension” about the proposed monument, says Johnson. “But they saw wisdom in launching” the plan.

Some say the meeting, held only two days before the governor’s speech, wasn’t enough, and didn’t show residents’ support for the request to designate as a national monument 620,000 acres of public land in the San Rafael Swell. The Access Advocate, the newsletter of the multiple-use group Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-All), contended that the notice for the meeting that ran in the Emery County Progress was too “small” and “unobtrusive.” The newsletter maintained that despite ongoing public-lands planning, “No one ever suggested those efforts be used for designating a national monument” and that “this concept was kept a guarded secret, from all stakeholders” until the meeting 48 hours before the governor’s speech.

People in the crowd at a March 23 meeting sponsored by the Castle County Rural Alliance in Huntington brandished the Access Advocate. Panelists urged the audience to be leery of monument designation. The speakers were former BLM state director Jim Parker, Dave Skinner from Montanans for Multiple Use and Garfield County resident Rick Crawford, who spoke against the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. Such a designation for the San Rafael Swell would be a disaster, was the overwhelming theme of the gathering.

That message was not, however, a reflection of the majority of citizens and leaders of Emery County, say Leavitt Administration officials. Wes Curtis, state planning coordinator for the Governor’s Rural Partnership Office, says most residents back the plan. “The OHV (off-highway vehicle) group, who is anti-monument, brought in ringers to stir up opposition” at the CCRA meeting. “[They] in no way represented the mainstream activity taking place,” he said.

The county held three public hearings surrounding the proposal that weekend. But land-use planning has been ongoing in Emery County for seven years, officials say. Those following it would not have been surprised to find a monument in the works, they contend.

Confounding the issue is the viewpoint of the wilderness advocacy groups involved in monument negotiations. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was one of the organizations asked by representatives of the governor’s office to talk with Emery County representatives in the months before the governor’s speech. But Larry Young, executive director of SUWA, said it caught them by surprise as well. “Conversations were ongoing when the monument designation was made,” Young said. Wilderness groups were anticipating another meeting before the governor made a decision.

Perhaps the monument proposal was not well known before the announcement. This is a Utah land-use issue, after all, perceived by rural Utahans as a threat to livelihood and culture and by advocates of wilderness as a threat to wildlife and ecology.

Emery County originally pushed a piece of federal legislation in 1998, known as H.R. 3625, that proposed a “national conservation and national heritage” area, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Chris Cannon. When it failed in Congress, due to heavy opposition from environmental groups, the county supported another Cannon measure, H.R. 3605, in 2000, called the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Area. His plan expanded the proposed conservation area to 1 million acres, withdrew future gas and oil development and allowed for motorized recreation in some areas. Both environmental groups and the Clinton White House opposed it. A third piece of legislation, H.R. 3876, the San Rafael Western Frontier National Heritage Area Act, also sponsored by Cannon, is currently pending before the House.

Such proposals coming out of Emery County are just part of the backdrop of 20 years of debate over Utah public lands. A 1985 “Citizen’s Proposal” by Utah conservationist groups suggested that more than 4.7 million acres become added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. In 1989, then-Utah Rep. Wayne Owens introduced the proposal to Congress as a bill, H.R. 1500. In 1993, the bill was renamed “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act” and was reintroduced by New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin introduced the Senate version of the bill in 1997.

Lands included for protection under the proposed bill now include 9.1 million acres in parts of the Book Cliff range, the Henry Mountains, the Moab-Lasal canyons, the Kaiparowits Plateau, the San Rafael Swell and many other tracts of Utah public land.

Some see a wilderness designation as a direct threat. “Absolute economic and social devastation,” in the words of Wes Curtis. Emery County is attempting to be proactive in proposing a national monument as a type of middle ground. Almost 50 percent of the county would be declared wilderness if the Red Rock Wilderness Act were passed. For many, the BLM, which administers public land in Utah, no longer meets the national expectations for its protection. But commissioners want to create the framework for conservation in a way that best fits local needs and aspirations, rather than the restrictions of wilderness designation foisted upon them by city-dwellers.

The Emery County Commission’s new effort to enforce its vision of land management was to ask the president to declare just over half a million acres of the Swell as the San Rafael Western Heritage National Monument. Not only would that cut in half the acreage proposed for wilderness, but the monument would also be a mix of tourist destination, economic development, multiple-use region and conservation area, protecting the mining, pioneering, settlement and exploration that shaped the Old West. Included in the proposed boundaries are the Old Spanish Trail and the Copper Globe mine sites.

The monument would be multiple use, which means that some OHV use would be allowed, but on identified trails only. Some areas would be designated wilderness. Further mining would be prohibited, although existing rights could not be removed, and grazing would be maintained as part of the historic landscape.

Rather than try to draw more tourists into the desert environment of the Swell, the county hopes to “enhance those areas that already have the infrastructure in place to handle those tourists,” says Johnson. That means drawing tourists into towns and museums through information made available along the highways and interstates. Johnson says the plan would help keep additional traffic out of pristine areas and prevent the loss of search-and-rescue dollars that the county currently pays to retrieve lost tourists from the Swell.

The commission likes the compromise but environmentalists aren’t so sure. SUWA is holding off on stating a position on the monument proposal until details are made public. “In general, we think national monuments can be a good way to provide enhanced protection for national treasures like the Swell,” says Young. But, he cautions, only if the language in the declaration doesn’t give the wilderness tracts in the monument substantially weaker protection than wilderness designation would give them. He adds, however, that even an acceptable monument would in no way amend SUWA’s push for 9.1 million acres of Utah wilderness. SUWA takes the position that public lands in Utah belong to all Americans, not just Utah residents living in proximity to proposed monuments or wilderness areas.

And that’s where that old injury starts to ache. “If they keep this a national issue, they don’t have anyone out there who supports them who is intimately familiar with the land,” says Johnson. “You should have the majority of input coming from those people who know the land the best, who have the most to gain or lose.”

Young counters that all Americans should be able to take a stand for Utah wilderness. Although Young doesn’t live in Emery County, he says he loves the contested lands, too. “The notion these are not essential and critical to my quality of life would be offensive to me.” He says it would be offensive to other Americans as well.

The Sierra Club website states that wilderness designation is actually the popular designation among Utahans, urban and rural alike. It cites a tabulation by the governor’s office in 1995, which charted over 22,000 written and spoken testimonies presented during April 1995 hearings in four Southern Utah towns and in Salt Lake City. The wilderness proposal of 5.7 million acres—the proposal at the time—received an approval of 73 percent, according to that tabulation.

Public comment in Johnson’s neck of the desert doesn’t seem to fall along those approval lines. “Wilderness is just not the beautiful panacea that they paint it to be,” he argues. “It might be in some places, but not everywhere. Down here it would be a real detriment to life and business.”

Clark Powell, of Huntington, is completely opposed to the monument proposal. He insists that the San Rafael Swell area is still rich in uranium, copper and oil, and that the continuation of the extractive industry in Emery County is the ticket that will allow young people to stay and work in their hometowns.

Losing the chance to have their kids grow old where they were once young is an issue that’s especially painful to rural people in mining communities. The people remember boom days when new mines brought jobs and paved roads and made what were once tumbleweed towns into thriving economic hubs. Even today, a mid-line coal miner makes about $75,000 a year, although the mining industry is lagging and layoffs and closures have been frequent in past decades. The second-largest county employer is the school district, with its pay on the lowest end of the national scale.

Powell, as an independent prospector, loathes the notion that he won’t have the opportunity to make further mining claims in the Swell. He sees any limits to his use of public land as an infringement on his rights. In fact, Powell sees the designation of public lands that reflect wilderness protection as a transfer of wealth, not an environmental protection policy. “My real concern is that we’re losing our freedom by losing our land and losing our land use,” says Powell. “Once it’s put into reserves,” (like government-controlled monuments), “it’s controlled by the government and not we the people.”

In Powell’s view, his right to make small mining claims—and the money he’d get from those—is turned over to the government with every acre that is given federal protection. “We always hear the negative side of what mining is doing for the environment. We never hear what it’s doing for the people, the growth of the people, so we live a better life,” he says.

Another rumor that’s driving monument discourse is that the Swell is a miner’s paradise, and that housed beneath the cap of sandstone is one of the world’s richest oil reserves, a coffer called the Blue Dome. It’s an almost unbearable dream to anyone who has lost a house or truck to a mining company layoff, to think that the opportunity to make good money again lies only miles away and a few hundred feet down.

But the Blue Dome might be another of the fallacies abundant surrounding the Swell, historic hiding place of old outlaws and tall tales. Mike Kaminski, Natural Resource Protection Specialist at the Price BLM office, says the Blue Dome is. “There’s no kind of oil field at all in the Swell,” he says. “The way the geology is formed, it would have evaporated years ago.”

Maybe the rumors come from the inability to imagine that any other industry could take hold in the 10,600-person county. Ranching and farming are commonplace here, but mining has always been the stronghold, providing jobs for Emery County residents and northern neighbors in Carbon County, currently providing 75 percent of the local tax base.

But mining simply can’t last forever. It’s estimated that about 25 to 30 years of coal are still available to be extracted before Emery County will be mined out. Curtis and the Governor’s Rural Partnership Office want to help the tiny towns in Emery “promote self-reliance, self-determination and foster cultural values”—the mission statement of the Utah Rural Development Council. They support the creation of a national monument to bring tourism to the area and still maintain a portion of the multiple use that has become part of Emery County’s cultural values.

“We have never suggested that tourism offers a better economic base than the mining economy that Carbon and Emery Counties have,” Curtis says in response to arguments that tourism brings in precious little in comparison to mining. “However, the mining industry is in full decline right now. These counties are really looking for ways to augment their economies and find alternatives. These folks [the commissioners] are being farsighted in building an economy that can help supplement and hopefully take the place of mining jobs that will be lost.”

SUWA’s Young agrees that the economic struggles of mining communities are a big part of their resistance to wilderness. “The real issue that is confronting people of Emery County is not a question of whether or not wilderness is designated in areas [other than those] where mining is going and cattle ranching could continue. The real question is what will they do to sustain the economic base when the coal runs out on the Wasatch Plateau.”

The other faction in the debate are the OHV enthusiasts, who would like to see existing routes left available to use by Jeeps, 4-wheelers, and other vehicle-based forms of recreation. “There are some very valuable trail systems down there [in the Swell] and we’d like to see them remain,” says Brian Hawthorne, executive director of USA-All. He’s with prospector Powell in terms of monument designation—he doesn’t want to see it happen.

USA-All wants to keep the mining roads open to OHV use within the Swell. They call those roads and trails a resource and even a national treasure, valuable to their 5,500 members. There are about 100,000 OHVs in Utah, and the state has become a magnet for hard-core dirt-riders from around the world. A touring company called Bill Burke’s 4-Wheeling America brought a troupe of Land Rovers to Moab last summer, and the Irish 4-Wheel Drive Club also has been in town with their Jeeps.

Hawthorne sympathizes with county residents who fear a large-scale wilderness designation, but says they’re ignoring the “800 pound gorilla sitting in the living room” by creating a monument proposal—and the issue is potential wilderness, not a monument. “I would like to see a county-generated wilderness proposal in Emery County,” he says. “OHV use and wilderness are the issues. There are very few management issues that exclude those things: protection and access to the resource.”

It is access that’s at stake. It’s land and love, and—let’s face it—power. Rural people are used to having the freedom to roam vast tracts of federal land in the ways they see fit. They’ll not likely give that freedom up easily. Americans, on a broader scale, love the freedom to voice their opinions on all public issues, and are proud that they can cause social change through grassroots efforts. As the last few generations have grown up witnessing destruction of the natural landscape in favor of industry, they, too, have a stake in it all. Who should win and who should lose will be left to further debate in city coffee shops and small town cafés. The debates will likely be heated, and new rumors will grow, fester and ache, while civic leaders and grassroots organizations take in public comment.