Last Friday afternoon the “Congressional Western Caucus” – a group of Republican lawmakers from the west (or who are “western” in spirit) – issued a press release attacking the Obama administration’s energy policies, misleadingly linking the current high price of gas at the pump with federal oil and gas leasing and development policies. The clear intimation is that if we only leased and drilled more, gas prices would come down. If only these sorts of claims were true.
Fact of the matter is, there are tens of millions of acres of BLM managed lands across the west that are currently under lease, but not in development by oil and gas companies. In Utah alone, there are 4.99 million acres of BLM land in Utah under lease – but only 1.09 million acres in production (per BLM FY 09 figures).
In the Western Caucus’s press release, Rep. Bishop complained that the administration “continue[s] to perpetuate misinformation about their record on oil and gas production, one thing remains very clear-there is an abundant supply of domestic oil and gas resources that remain inaccessible and therefore unutilized.” The facts speak for themselves.
In Utah, 2010 drilling rates (975 wells started or “spudded”) in Utah were higher than any year between 2001-2005.
Also, the number of drill rigs in Utah and other western states has continued to rise. As of last Friday there were 31 rigs operating in Utah; at this time in 2010 there were 25 rigs – and in July of 2009 there were 16.
All the while, Secretary Salazar has worked to bring balance back to public lands management including reforming the oil and gas leasing process, issuing a Secretarial Order which established the BLM’s “Wild Lands” policy, and promoting renewable energy projects to wean our nation off fossil fuels.
At their core, these policies recognize that it is possible to have a strong domestic energy program, while at the same time protecting our nation’s wilderness landscapes.
The “westerners” in the Western Caucus do us all a disservice by promoting a false dichotomy of “drill everywhere” or pay high prices at pump. It’s just not that simple.
The redrock is particularly lucky to have a large number of articulate and passionate activists dedicated to achieving lasting protections for Utah wilderness. Last week, 20 of those folks (half from Utah and half from across the country) traveled to Washington, DC for Utah Wilderness Week 2011 to ask their members of Congress to support protecting America's redrock wilderness and to defend against anti-wilderness attacks in Congress.
The mission: Convincing Senators and Representatives to cosponsor America's Red Rock Wilderness Act in the 112th Congress, and also to ask them to preserve administrative tools (the "Wild Lands" policy and the Antiquities Act) that could be used by the Obama administration to protect special places in southern Utah. After a full day of lobby training and learning about the issues in more detail, the activists were ready to take on Capitol Hill, proudly displaying their bright yellow and black "Protect Wild Utah" buttons.
Some of the highlights of the week:
Maryland activist Claire Gardner (pictured 2nd from left) met with her Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD, pictured 2nd from right), who did not cosponsor America's Red Rock Wilderness Act last Congress after supporting the bill in the past. Not only was she and her teammate John Hoener (UT, pictured first on right) able to meet with the Congressman himself, but emerged from the meeting with a promise to cosponsor the bill. Rep. Van Hollen followed up on his word and was one of the first Representatives to cosponsor America's Red Rock Wilderness Act in the 112th Congress.
The Utahns were able to meet with 3 members of their delegation personally: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT, pictured 4th from left). Although the Utah delegation does not often see eye to eye with Utah wilderness supporters, the meetings were productive and reminded these members of Congress that Utahns do support protecting the remaining wild lands in their state.
The activists were also able to attend a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing on the Bureau of Land Management's "Wild Lands" policy. While it was disappointing to see how wilderness foes on the committee had stacked the deck of witnesses against the policy, everyone was excited to display their yellow "Protect Wild Utah" buttons and listen to wilderness champions on the committee such as Reps. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ed Markey (D-MA), John Garamendi (D-CA), and Rush Holt (D-NJ) defend the BLM's authority to manage lands for their wilderness characteristics.
Overall, the week was very successful and we already have a list of Congress members who have officially signed on as cosponsors of America's Red Rock Wilderness Act. Thank you to all who participated!
How can you help?
1) Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and speak with your Senators' or Reprensentative's DC offices, asking that they cosponsor America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.
2) Go to our Action Center and send emails to your members of Congress, asking that they cosponsor America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.
3) Sign the petition asking Congress to protect America's Redrock Wilderness:
Tuesday’s hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee regarding the Obama Administration’s Wild Lands policy generated more than its share of misinformation, misleading statements, and invented facts and figures. Case in point: Utah Governor Gary Herbert, in a moment of exuberance, alleged that protecting wilderness could hurt school kids, to the tune of billions of dollars. However, history does not support his assertion; in fact, quite the opposite, protecting wilderness may actually give Utah’s school kids a better shot at revenue generation.
When Utah joined the Union it was gifted scattered tracts of trust land throughout the state (trust lands are shown in blue on this map). Utah received lands that were blocked by cliffs, surrounded by deserts, and hidden in canyons and were often not accessible by any existing roads. These lands were given for the benefit of school kids and Utah interprets that to mean that trust lands should generate revenue. However, this pattern of land distribution has not lent itself to revenue maximization for the education budget. When Gov. Herbert says wilderness will hurt school kids he is saying that these trust lands—which are often surrounded by federal lands worthy of wilderness designation—will be made inaccessible by protecting the surrounding public lands. Apparently, the Governor likes to imagine that these scattered tracts of land could be the panacea to Utah’s education budget needs.
However, this is unlikely to ever be the case. Partly because school trust lands in Utah are so scattered and remote, they never generate much revenue. In fact, they do not even contribute one percent of the yearly public education budget in Utah. Indeed, if Utah were to liquidate all of the accrued assets from 115 years of school trust lands management, they would not even cover three months worth of the state education budget! Despite the roaring 2000s, when school trust lands witnessed unprecedented levels of oil and gas development as well as a real estate market boom, school trust lands continue to be nothing more than the budgetary equivalent of loose coins under the couch cushions.
Of course, every little bit can help when discussing funding for Utah’s cash-strapped schools. But, 115 years of school trust land management show us what we can expect from Gov. Herbert’s pipe dream that these lands became the cash cow of education. This is not going to happen. Long before Congress passed the Wilderness Act, when the public lands were nothing but a free for all—even more so than now—geography and a lack of infrastructure, among other things, conspired to keep school trust lands as a minor footnote to the education budget. Federal land protection did not do this then and it does not do this now.
In reality, increasing the amount of protected federal land is probably the best path for increasing the contributions from school trust lands. The reason for this is because federal land protection spurs beneficial land consolidation, through exchanges with the federal government. These land exchanges, which result from Congressional desire to protect sensitive areas, trade scattered trust land parcels in remote locations for blocks of federal lands near infrastructure or with development potential.
The prime example of conservation on public lands benefiting Utah’s school kids was the land exchange motivated by the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This was possibly the single greatest revenue-generating act in the modern history of school trust lands management. Utah’s school kids picked up numerous valuable blocks of land with significant oil and gas development potential as well as multiple coal leasing tracts. In fact, one oil and gas parcel acquired by the state in this exchange provided 60% of all state trust land oil and gas revenue in 2006. Furthermore, the United States essentially wrote Utah’s school kids a $50 million check. Just recently, a desire to protect valuable and sensitive lands along the Colorado River led to a second example, the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act of 2009. In a trade for these special places, Utah gained trust lands in the Uinta Basin more appropriate, and more profitable, for development. This was a win-win situation motivated by conserving public lands and its benefits have been loudly touted by the state.
Historically, trust lands development on scattered, remote lands has put very little in education coffers. Unfortunately, it often leads to significant environmental damage. This path of futility is what Gov. Herbert championed at the hearing. It is simply not worth the price; we do not benefit Utah’s school kids in giving away such treasures for pennies. Furthermore, it prevents the state from following the path that history has shown to be the most beneficial for school kids and education budgets: protecting our wild public lands, thereby spurring beneficial land trades.
 As a side note, this argument has no legal basis. Federal courts have ruled that Utah always has access to its school trust lands, even if the surrounding land were protected as wilderness.
 Revenue from school trust lands is deposited in the Permanent School Fund, which is a savings fund where the principle is retained and the yearly interest is disbursed to schools.
Now that the dust has settled on Capitol Hill and Members of Congress are well into their President’s Day work weeks, we are beginning to get a sense of where things are heading as the Senate prepares to take up the Continuing Appropriations Resolution next week. But first, to recap what happened last week that led to the Continuing Resolution being dubbed "one of the worst environmental bills" to ever come under consideration in Congress:
On the list of bad public lands provisions in the bill, the worst for the redrock was language that would block the Bureau of Land Management’s ‘Wild Lands’ policy – before it had even been finalized! Unfortunately, there was little to be done about this provision since it was included in the original bill text by anti-wilderness appropriations committee chairs. However, the other two major threats to the redrock either failed or were withdrawn.
One amendment, offered by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) and eventually withdrawn, would have defunded the National Landscape Conservation System – the department within the BLM that administers national monuments, wilderness study areas and other important conservation lands. This would have effectively closed those places to the public since all funding for staff and management would cease.
Reps. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Raul Labrador (R-ID) offered another terrible amendment to block the use of the Antiquities Act (the bill that allowed past presidents to protect such places as Arches, Zion, and Bryce) – and fortunately this one failed on a narrow 213-209 vote. This is a major victory for our public lands on an otherwise environmentally destructive bill. Please see how your Member of Congress voted on the Heller amendment and if they voted “nay” (the good way), then please thank them by using our action center!
As we move forward next week, we’re likely to see some more action on the 'Wild Lands' policy as the House Committee on Natural Resources makes it the topic of its first oversight hearing. We’re expecting Chairmen Doc Hastings (R-WA) and Bishop to stack the decks against supporters of the policy, so we need you to participate by watching the hearing on the committee’s website and engaging with our social media team to show widespread support for the Utah’s redrock.
Finally, as the Senate takes up Continuing Resolution, we’re glad to hear Senate leadership standing firm in their commitment to not allow any policy making on the bill (which includes the 'Wild Lands' policy provision), so their final product will likely look distinctly different from the House’s. There is rampant speculation now about the coming week’s high stakes game of political chicken as funding runs out for the federal government – and we hope and will work to ensure that the 'Wild lands' policy is not a chip in any deals made to keep the lights on.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Recapture Canyon’s cool, flowing stream provides year-round water, lush vegetation, and a haven for wildlife. This idyllic setting was likely the reason that nearly 2000 years ago, Ancestral Puebloans begin inhabiting Recapture Canyon. These agrarian communities thrived in Recapture for more than 1000 years. Remarkable remnants of their culture, such as the ancient structural site at left, have been preserved through the years along the stream banks and benches in this quiet canyon in southeastern Utah. The silence was broken in 2005, when a 20-mile illegal off-road vehicle (ORV) trail was constructed in Recapture, damaging several of these ancient sites, and increasing the potential for future damages.
Last week, a Federal Magistrate levied fines, totaling $35,000 on two Blanding men who were charged with damaging federal property when they illegally constructed the ORV trail. After conducting the investigation, filing charges and ultimately prevailing in the criminal case, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will surely keep the illegal trail closed to ORV use, right? Well . . . not if San Juan County, UT gets its way.
After the illegal trail was built, San Juan County requested that the BLM essentially legitimize the illegally constructed trail and grant a right-of-way to the county for the ATV trail. To its credit, and before issuing a right-of-way to the county, the BLM had a cultural resource survey conducted along the illegal trail. The survey reported that the illegal trail crosses directly through numerous ancient cultural sites (see pot shards found on the ATV trail at right). ATVs using this trail would run over archaeological sites that are considered eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
After the illicit construction, the BLM eventually closed the illegal trail to motor vehicle use to protect the archaeological sites from further damage and vandalism. The Hopi Tribe has requested that the BLM make the closure permanent due to the sensitive nature of the cultural resources in the canyon.
The BLM should stay the course and protect the natural and cultural resources in Recapture Canyon. Giving in to San Juan County’s pressure for a right-of-way for the illegal trail would be a contradiction of the BLM’s legal duties, and would send a conflicting message: On the one hand, the BLM will seek criminal penalties and fines for persons who illegally construct trails on public lands, while on the other hand, the agency will reward the illegal action by giving the illegal trail to the county for ORV use.
There is no shortage of ORV trails in San Juan County -- ORV enthusiasts can enjoy over 5,000 miles (!) of ORV routes and trails on BLM lands, with even more trails on U.S. Forest Service lands. Thus, the BLM should do the right thing and maintain the existing closure order to protect the irreplaceable cultural artifacts in Recapture Canyon.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Misconceptions about which activities are and are not allowed in designated wilderness have always been floating around, but with Interior Secretary Salazar's reversal of the Bush-era "No More Wilderness" policy a few weeks ago, those inaccurate statements have been out in full swing.
Earlier this week, I received a Google Alert in my inbox that linked to this message from an anti-wilderness group. Although one particularly memorable part of the request was, "I hate to have to say this, but from past meeting experience I must mention that coming sober, and polite will be very helpful," the message also said, "They [referring to SUWA and other wilderness advocacy groups] don't approve of you. They hate your dog, your dirt bike, and especially your ATV," - seeming to imply that dogs are not allowed in wilderness areas.
Last week, this Letter-to-the-Editor in the Deseret News claimed that wild lands designations would "close land to multiple use — recreation, hunting, fishing, four-wheeling, mineral extraction, grazing, etc."
First, to address the dog issue. Dogs are allowed in BLM wilderness (Salazar's wild lands policy only applies to BLM lands, and all lands in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act are managed by the BLM). In fact, some SUWA staff and members often enjoy hiking and rafting in proposed wilderness with their dogs - and dogs sometimes accompany our field staff on their field work (see Field Attorney Tiffany Bartz's dog Sirius enjoying some proposed wilderness at right).
Second, if hunting and fishing were not allowed in designated BLM wilderness or wild lands areas, then why would a writer from Field & Stream be praising Salazar's move and criticizing those elected officials who so forcefully oppose wild land protection? Grazing is also still allowed in BLM wilderness if permits existed prior to the designation.
And last, many of those same politicians and other wilderness opponents who claim that protecting wild places would "lock up" public lands also support increased oil and gas development on BLM lands. Funny then, that on a recent trip one of our board members noticed that there was a sign at a drill site that said "No Public Access." So what is really "locking" the public out of the lands that each and every American owns - a wilderness designation where any person (or animal) can enter and enjoy (as long as by foot, raft, horseback, canoe, or other type of non-mechanized means), or leasing to companies that prevent the American public from accessing their own lands?
It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to one of the Redrock’s greatest champions, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Russ, as his colleagues refer to him, lost his race for a fourth term in the anti-Washington frenzy of the recent election. Ironically, Russ is about as independent as they come in the Senate…but that’s a hard point to make in today’s electoral climate.
Hailing from the same state as legendary environmental figures Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, promoting environmental issues seems a natural fit for Russ. His involvement in federal wilderness issues began soon after a trip to southern Utah in 1999, when he founded the Senate Wilderness Caucus. Through the caucus, Russ hoped to educate other Senators who might not know the important role Congress plays in the protection of our special places – a formidable goal for the Senate.
Throughout his tenure in the Senate, Russ’ unwavering support for America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act was manifested through actions taken to defend the land and gain protections – including playing an important role in the improvement of the Washington County bill that passed early last year.
We bid Russ a fond farewell and wish him the best in his future endeavors – which we hope might include protecting wilderness.
Please take a moment to write a short thank you note to Russ. Please email your notes to email@example.com and our DC staff will print them out and hand deliver them to his office before the end of this Congress.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Yesterday, we released our new “2010 Report Card: Assessing Utah BLM’s Management of Off-Road Vehicles.” Off-road vehicle (ORV) use on Utah’s public lands is an enormously controversial public lands issue, and ORV-caused damage – erosion, water pollution, noise, air-borne dust, crushed and looted archaeological sites -- continues to increase. Based upon BLM’s failure to comply with federal law and protect natural and historical resources from ORVs, we had to give BLM failing and very low grades for most categories. Those of us who love Utah’s wild country are fed up with the damage, and it’s way past time for BLM to fix this mess.
A growing body of scientific research conducted by federal agencies, universities, and independent scientists that conclude that ORV use is damaging to a variety of natural resources and Utah’s wealth of archaeological resources. (You don’t really need scientists to tell you this – many of us have seen the damage first hand on one of our trips to the desert.)
In particular, research demonstrates that ORV use near archaeological structures, rock art and other artifacts increases the risk of vandalism and looting of Utah’s irreplaceable archaeological treasures.
Scientific research also shows that ORV use in Utah’s streams and waterways is especially harmful. These areas (referred to as “riparian areas” by the BLM) make up just 1 % of Utah’s public lands, yet support over 80% of wildlife species. ORV use increases sedimentation, destroys healthy stream banks and vegetation, increases water temperatures and lowers the water table, threatening fish and other stream life, plants and valuable wildlife habitat.
In addition, federal agency research concludes that ORV use exacerbates the effects of climate change on the Colorado Plateau by eroding soils and contributing to the large dust storms that blanket Colorado’s mountains with dust resulting in earlier and faster snow melt, degrading water supplies, and spreading invasive weeds that increase the risk of wildfires.
Our 2010 Report Card assesses BLM’s ORV plans, completed in 2008, for 11 million acres in eastern and southern Utah. These plans put an end to the free-for-all ORV management of the past decades – a step in the right direction.
However, rather than comply with federal law that requires BLM to protect the air, water, archaeological sites, scenic values, and ecology of our public lands, and to “minimize” the impacts of ORV use on these resources and the landscape, the agency designated a dense network of 20,000 miles of ORV routes – enough to drive between New York City and Los Angeles seven times!
And, unfortunately, these ORV plans allow ORV use in many of the most sensitive areas, including in streambeds and wildlife habitat, across archaeological sites, and in roadless areas. The 2008 plans close only 15% of the lands to ORV use, even though BLM’s own survey data shows that less than 10% of visitors to public lands use ORVs while 90% of visitors enjoy recreational pursuits other than ORVing on Utah’s public lands.
BLM has the authority to fix these plans, and we propose a solution that would provide immediate protection for the most sensitive areas and resources: BLM should close routes located in scarce desert streams, in areas known to have dense concentrations of archaeological sites, and in roadless areas. This would entail closing around 3,000 miles of route, leaving 17,000 miles of route available for ORV use. This easy solution would help restore a sense of balance to the public lands, and protect a few places from the long-term damages caused by ORV use.
SUWA Field Attorney
Today, we're launching a sustained, multi-year media campaign in Utah to capitalize upon a growing shift in public opinion about wilderness in our state, and to further educate Utah residents about wilderness as an issue and a valuable part of our state and national heritage.
Click here to visit the campaign website and see the ads.
Relying heavily on broadcast and cable television spots, online ads throughout Utah, and outdoor advertising in the Salt Lake City metro area, the campaign aims to elevate the discussion and build greater support for permanently protecting Utah's wilderness heritage.
This new media campaign builds upon a dramatic shift in public opinion that has taken place in Utah regarding our state’s incredible wild lands.
In 1989, when Utah Congressman Wayne Owens first introduced his bill for 5.1 million acres of BLM wilderness in Utah, 80 percent of Utahns who had an opinion about wilderness opposed it.
Today, 60 percent of Utahns who’ve made up their minds on the issue support protecting 9 million acres or more of Utah wilderness.
We believe this shift in opinion can be accelerated through education. Many Utah families already enjoy spending time in our state's proposed wilderness areas. They hike, camp, hunt and fish in the areas that deserve wilderness protection.
But for many Utahns, wilderness as an issue has been obfuscated by the radical rhetoric of our opponents.
That's why we're committed to this campaign for the long haul. An intensive in-state advertising campaign can increase public awareness and understanding of Utah's proposed wilderness areas, their accessibility to the general public, and the value that protecting Utah's wilderness areas brings to our state's economy.
By reaching out to the broad majority of Utahns who support a balanced approach to wilderness preservation and giving them a voice, we believe this campaign can change the game and help bring permanent protection for wilderness in Utah.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance