The vast majority of lands in Grand County are held by the federal government. As such, they are subject to being proclaimed as national monuments by a U.S. president. Over a century ago, the Antiquities Act enabled protection of the Grand Canyon with the stroke of a pen. Many worthy places have become monuments via presidents, or become parks through the approval of Congress. Yet modern presidents have continued proclaiming even larger monuments. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is still controversial, two decades after its establishment. It will never be as popular as Grand Canyon.
So, when the Outdoor Industry Association proposed a Greater Canyonlands National Monument in 2012, many Moab residents were upset. The boundaries would effectively make Canyonlands National Park seven times its current size. They’re identical to the proposal from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which would close most of the motorized routes that were spared in the Bureau of Land Management’s 2008 Moab Resource Management Plan.
Out of this threat spawned an opportunity by Rep. Rob Bishop. His Eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative asked counties to develop public lands proposals that he would then pitch to Congress. This approach contrasts with the top-down model of monument proclamation.
After scoping, alternatives, and more comments, it’s clear that Grand County residents’ opinions are all over the map. Some comments were against any further wilderness designation, while others were against any further development. Since public lands bills are comprehensive, people are naturally concerned. And since every aspect of the alternatives will offend someone, maybe the county council members are afraid to support anything. In fact, at the last council meeting, there was hesitation to oppose the presidential proclamation of new monuments, even though the council already adopted that position just last year. Likewise, there was reluctance to designate any acreage as a national recreation area, even though the council members could define what uses would be allowed. After nearly a yearlong process, it’s as if we’re back to square one.
Granted, residents are passionate about the surrounding public lands. At the April 23 public hearing, every speaker sounded genuine. It was a valuable forum to air one’s frustration. It makes sense for our elected officials to approach controversies with caution. But the time for venting is done, and the time for negotiation has come.
Rep. Bishop sees a window of opportunity to pass locally-derived legislation, but he can’t wait forever. We need to continue educating ourselves, and start considering some trade-offs. After cooling off, I think most people will find the draft alternatives to be a reasonable blueprint for legislation.
The Antiquities Act prohibition simply prevents a president from trumping our county proposal with a new monument, while still allowing Congress to make new parks and expand old ones.
A national recreation area could allow for OHV recreation and the mining/drilling of existing leases, so long as it’s specified in our proposal. The more significant issues are countywide transportation and newer industries, such as oil sands strip mining. With a single sentence, the county proposal could secure long-term access to the current mileage of motorized and non-motorized routes, at minimum. As for oil sands, perhaps the Book Cliffs energy corridor could be limited to conventional mining/drilling, or a different type of development could be facilitated elsewhere in the county.
My point is that the draft alternatives are a good start. The county council study group did well at drafting alternatives, and they just need to be refined. The resulting proposal will have great potential to stabilize the lifestyle and livelihood of residents. Providing more certainty to the management of public lands could simultaneously improve tourism, non-tourism industries, and natural resource conservation. Otherwise we’ll remain vulnerable to impositions, whether from widespread preservation schemes or from reckless development.
As some commenters have pointed out, these same threats apply to USFS lands. I suppose that the county proposal could address USFS lands and any other new issues by accepting another round of public comments. However, most of the La Sal Mountains are in San Juan County, and focusing on BLM lands is a big enough bite to chew. At the moment, the BLM lands seem more susceptible to sweeping changes, whether in the form of severe restrictions, severe development, or (more likely) both of those things in different places. Yet, through Rep. Bishop, there’s also the prospect of securing the health of our economy and of our landscape.
Now that we’ve all weighed in on the problems, I hope our county council members will lead us through a solution. Criticizing the federal government may be easy, familiar, or even fun. Yet constructing a way forward is ultimately more useful, powerful, and respectable. Our community is being given a say on the surrounding lands. Let’s rise to the occasion.
Clif Koontz is the executive director of Ride with Respect, which maintains recreational trails and educates visitors surrounding Moab.