In Their Own Voices: Grand County Residents Take a Stand for Public Lands Protection
by Marc Thomas
In an impressive show of local support for wilderness and public lands protection this past January, residents of Grand County flooded their county council with heartfelt letters advocating for lots more of it. The council had invited public input in order to develop its own recommendations for Utah Representative Rob Bishop’s public lands bill initiative. Ostensibly, any legislation coming out of this process is to be based on consensus reached by interested stakeholders in eastern and southern Utah on how to designate public lands for conservation and development, thereby giving certainty to the way the lands are managed and used. It just so happens that two-thirds of all proposed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness in Utah lie inside the six counties involved in this process.
The original deadline for public comment was mid-January, but at the urging of the Glen Canyon Group of the Sierra Club, the three members of the council's public lands subcommittee were willing to encourage more public participation by extending the deadline to the end of the month. The longer comment period enabled residents and business owners in the Moab area to submit 175 letters, of which approximately 90% asked for widespread protection of federal BLM and Forest Service wild lands in the county. In the end, one out of every five letters received by the council came from members of the Club’s Glen Canyon Group.
Information relevant to the process is on the county’s home page (http://www.grandcountyutah.net/), including all public comment letters received. The council subcommittee is currently reviewing all comments that were submitted to help it prepare an array of alternative land designation scenarios for presentation to residents at a public meeting taking place in Moab sometime in March (date not known as we went to press).
There will be an additional time period after the public meeting for written comments from county residents on the alternatives drafted by the council subcommittee. The final phase will consist of the county council’s review of the public comments and the alternatives suggested by the subcommittee. The county council will then vote during an open, public meeting on a preferred alternative to submit to Representative Bishop for consideration in his proposed legislation. The Representative has set a target date of Fall 2014 to complete the proposal for Congress to review.
The excerpts below are taken from letters submitted by local Sierra Club members to the county council that celebrate love of land and love of community. In their own words, they testify that nothing anywhere else matches the beauty, solitude, wildness, biological diversity, and accessibility of the public lands that surround Moab. While blessed to call these canyons, mesa tops, and mountains home, they still express a deep-rooted responsibility to retain these incredible assets for future generations of Americans.
Any bill needs to protect our resources - air, water, historic and prehistoric cultural resources, flora, fauna, viewshed, dark skies, quiet zones…Because both our economy and our quality of life are so heavily dependent on these resources, strong measures must be in place to prevent their degradation. Some areas are definitely important to protect as wilderness: Riparian areas such as Mill Creek and Ten Mile Wash, red rock areas with scenic values such as Behind-the-Rocks and drainages of the Colorado and Green Rivers, and critical habitats for plants and animals.
Any activity which would impair air quality or water quality should not be allowed. These are survival and health issues for the residents. Anywhere it is determined that development and/or resource extraction is appropriate, these activities should be thoroughly monitored with constant oversight and measures for complete reclamation.
Mike and Jean Binyon:
We understand that the Council wants to provide input to Representative Bishop’s [initiative]on behalf of Grand County citizens. As residents of the County since 1999, we are writing to ensure...this input includes our priorities. One of our reasons for buying land and building our home in Grand County was the closeness of high quality public lands, particularly those managed by the federal government.
We are familiar with many of the Non-Wilderness Study Areas Lands with Wilderness Characteristics which were identified by the Moab Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and believe that they should all be managed as wilderness. In particular, we are writing about two of the most spectacular of these areas: Fisher Towers and Mary Jane Canyon...We have hiked in these areas on many occasions and have often taken visiting relatives and other guests there to hike and enjoy the scenery and solitude. They should be reserved for hiking and climbing, i.e., for primitive recreation; they should never be considered for any off-road travel, mineral leasing, or other incursions. Both should be right-of-way exclusion areas for pipelines, power lines, and corridor designations.
We moved to Moab in April 2010 because we loved the area and wanted to spend our spare time hiking and biking...Most of our friends are retired and have also moved here to enjoy the outdoors...The people who are retiring to Moab have money and they are concerned about the environment.
Moab was in danger of becoming another ghost town after the uranium boom and was saved by the tourism industry. If you ruin the environment with tar sands, nuclear reactors, and drilling pads, people are not going to come here. In addition, the folks with the money are going to leave.
The Sierra Club has taken me to places I cannot even describe or would never have believed...I have been to Teardrop Arch, climbed the cable at Cable Arch, hiked to see the Comet Man petroglyph, and hiked to Otho Arch. I have hiked at Fisher Towers, Mary Jane Canyon, Mill Creek, Hunter Canyon and many others.
PLEASE, please, do not turn over Grand County to the oil industry. They will love you for a while and then toss you aside as they move on to the next county. The people who have moved here are paying taxes every day; we support the local restaurants and businesses. We buy our furniture at Knowles and hire local contractors and cabinet makers. [We] live here because we chose this area and we want to live here.
The principal motivation for my move to this region was the irreplaceable natural beauty here that allowed me to gain sustenance through the sheer joy of being in it - viewing, hiking, breathing, wondering, appreciating, rafting, kayaking, and so on. Over the past 5 years, I have hiked, usually 2 or 3 times a week, with the Sierra Club’s Glen Canyon group, other impromptu groups, and by myself through many of the designated areas that appear on the [America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act] map.
For example, I have hiked, and wish to continue to enjoy without commercial intrusion, various canyons within the Labyrinth designation, such as Hellroaring, Mineral, and Spring. Other designated canyons and areas that I have been frequently active in as a hiker or kayaker are Desolation, Fisher Towers, Mary Jane, Porcupine Rim, Morning Glory, Mill Creek, Behind the Rocks, Hunter, Gold Bar, Arches Adjacent, Yellow Bird, Dome Plateau, and Dead Horse Cliffs. All of these areas deserve your efforts to protect them from harm.
I support the widest possible designation of Grand County lands for wilderness. This includes the Labyrinth Canyon area, Goldbar Canyon, and the Book Cliffs region. I urge the county to protect lands in the La Sal Mountains that are part of the Moab watershed. The Manti-La Sal National Forest should include wilderness to protect the water supply of Moab.
Congress should not make federal land exchanges or designate federal land uses in Grand County outside [the jurisdiction] of the National Environmental Policy Act. The County must know what the future possible impacts would be of lands that are transferred to the State of Utah. Grand County should also take into consideration the fact that the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining and the BLM routinely fail to administer and enforce their mining regulations and applicable state and federal statutes.
Conservation means protecting our land as it is today. This means not increasing the significant imprint of humans across all portions of this county and the nation. This means managing the lands so that native plants and animals continue into the future in their natural abundance and distribution. In Grand County we are fortunate to live in a place where much of the land retains these kinds of characteristics. We have a responsibility to retain this naturalness for future generations of Americans.
I have hiked in or visited most of the wilderness units proposed by the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Some wilderness units I use regularly such as Goldbar, Mill Creek, Behind the Rocks, Hunter, Porcupine Rim and Morning Glory. Some I see less often such as units adjacent to Arches NP, Mary Jane, Fisher Towers, Desolation Canyon, Diamond Canyon, Mexico Point, Horsethief Point and Labyrinth Canyon. I would like to see all of these areas designated Wilderness. I would like to see all proposed wilderness in Utah designated as Wilderness. When the BLM completed a re-inventory of proposed wilderness in 1999 they largely agreed with the inventory of conservation groups supporting America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
I would like to see Rep. Bishop and Rep. Chaffetz succeed. I would like to see them walk away with a prize no one else has been able to claim. I want them to achieve a comprehensive package of legislation to deal with the largest chunks of wilderness in Utah. Two thirds of all proposed BLM wilderness in Utah lie within the six counties involved in this process.
[However], if this process fails then America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act and the possibility of a new national monument remain. If Rep. Bishop does not pass reasonable legislation then America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act will continue being introduced in Congress. The president may yet designate a monument to overcome an inadequate attempt at protective measures.
I moved to Grand County in 1990 because of the landscape, abundant water (relative to many other places), clean air, and friendly community. These are the qualities that have kept me here for the past twenty-three years.
During this time I have watched Moab go from mineral bust to a tourist boom. While at times I feel like the tourism is a bit much, I think it provides the most viable path for truly sustainable economic growth. As such I ask that you do all you can to protect our air and water quality and the landscapes that we treasure...which I believe form the basis for a steadily improving community for many decades to come.
One of the primary responsibilities of government is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizenry. Climate change is appearing increasingly probable, and may be the greatest threat to the county’s long-term stability. I would prefer that complicity in severe drought and other weather extremes, as well as air and water pollution, is not one of the sacrifices that we make as part of a ‘bargain’. I would prefer that our community not be exposed to the increased drug use and crime that is being documented in oil and gas boomtowns. Please advocate for a public lands solution that protects our incredible landscape, and supports economic and social stability. Please lobby for a level of mineral extraction which, at worst, has no chance of degrading our water and air quality, or limited water supply.
The tourist industry in Grand County provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the local economy. The mining and oil and gas industry provides far fewer jobs, with over ninety percent of the dollars going out of state or to a foreign country.
The national parks are Grand County’s greatest assets. The Bishop Public Lands Initiative needs to protect the areas around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks from industrialization. Tourists do not come to see an industrial zone. The oil and gas and mining industry should not be allowed to industrialize our tourist industry resources or reduce the value of the parks to tourism.
I support wilderness protection for all the wilderness-quality lands in Grand County identified in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. Awed by their scenic grandeur, I have hiked in the Fisher Towers, Mary Jane Canyon, Yellow Bird, Arches Adjacent, Porcupine Rim, Morning Glory, Mill Creek, Behind the Rocks, Goldbar Canyon, Hunters Canyon, Horsethief Point, and Labyrinth Canyon units, hundreds of times in aggregate. It’s wonderful to be in wilderness five miles from my house...and knowing that it’s there is a source of continuing satisfaction.
The natural beauty of this area is the reason I have retired here. Please protect it.
The people I know that come here and value the Moab area do so because it has so many areas unspoiled by development, drilling, roads, etc. It has a much healthier environment than most of the rest of the country. I, and many of my friends, would like to see it stay that way. Poor air and water quality are becoming very detrimental to the rest of the state (look at the air in Salt Lake City) and the country.
Clean air and water and fantastic unspoiled scenery attract people from all over the country and the world. That is why I moved here in the first place…I plead that you do as much as possible to protect the proposed wilderness areas and the air and water quality in our county so that Moab and Grand County will continue to be a desirable place to live and visit.
History has shown the boom-bust nature of resource extraction tends to cripple local communities and leaves land in unsafe and unusable conditions. Extraction booms threaten local water supplies, social services, and infrastructure budgets.
The types of unconventional oil development proposed for the areas in question have very low Energy Returns on Investment (ROI)…that make long-term financial ROI minimally feasible at best. They also call for millions of gallons of water that cannot be recycled. Have you read the growing stack of reports on current and future drought (and mega-drought) conditions in the Colorado River Basin? Chasing short-term gains at the expense of long-term social, economic, and environmental health is irresponsible and myopic.
It would behoove us to also consider that Utah’s public land is not just a commodity to be parsed, sold, traded, and used to exhaustion. Undisturbed, it holds a place in our collective conscience, cultural identity, and quality of life.
I love the spectacular landscape and diverse scenery of our lands in Grand County. It's why I moved here 23 years ago and why I live here still despite all the contentious battles about whether or not...to destroy it. It is unique, outstanding, a world-wide magnet for tourists and a driver of our economy.
Tourism is not a completely benign industry; there is some damage to the ecosystem from visitation. But that disruption is miniscule compared to the destruction from extractive gas and oil and mining industries, which leave a legacy of torn apart landscape and air pollution, a dearth of water, and visual impediments such as oil rigs, large holes in the ground and mounds of misplaced soil, expanded roads and heavy traffic in areas that should be wilderness. These are visual distractions and depredations to areas that are important to our tourism and to the spirits of many of those of us who live here.
I was in North Dakota last year and stopped at the State tourist center, where I showed the person behind the desk a map of places where I thought I would like to go. She said "Don't". The area was full of large trucks, industrial rigs, ponds and machinery, pollution, tainted water, "roughnecks" and filled campgrounds and cheap motels. This may be great for the campground and motel owners (and bars), but it is detrimental to the families in the area. And it sure doesn't help tourism when the official tourist person steers one away from the area.
One of the most important aspects of preservation...in Grand County is water and watersheds. It is critical to protect the important watersheds of the La Sal Mountains. The proposed Forest Wilderness and La Sal Mountains National Scenic Area (NSA) should be enacted for protection of watershed, wildlife management, and its many scenic values.
As well as preserving this special place for our own enjoyment, we have a responsibility to the next generations to ensure they, too, can enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of our area.
Extractive energies have a long history of polluting the air and water of surrounding communities...As a Registered Dietitian who has worked in the health care field for more than 30 years, I feel that allowing more extractive processes into the public lands of Grand County is in opposition to preserving public health.
Grand County seems poised at a crux between the current levels of extractive industry activity and a huge increase in extractive development. At the recent levels we have enjoyed the clean air and water which is essential to health and, I believe, is the responsibility of government to help ensure. We have also enjoyed a social climate of relative safety for most citizens.
This could change drastically if large scale extraction is allowed...I lived in Wyoming and watched many communities lose their clean air and water due to extraction processes, despite promises made to the contrary. Even here in Moab, any money gained by the Atlas mine has surely not covered the expense that taxpayers have paid of the UMTRA cleanup. Of equal importance is the change in social quality of a community when larger numbers of single, well paid, nonresident workers temporarily move into an area (evidenced recently in North Dakota).
My family and I enjoy recreating in wilderness quality areas, and I realize recreation represents a large part of Grand County's economy. However, the health and safety of Grand County residents remain my primary concern for asking you to protect large amounts of wilderness in Grand County.
I hate to see effects of the rapidly expanding extractive industry especially to the north of us in Uintah county. In going to the rafting put-in for Desolation/Gray Canyons from Myton to Sand Wash, that area has become its own labyrinth of wells, gas lines, and storage tanks. I believe if that was to occur in this county we would kill our beauty and greatly discourage tourism. I was particularly upset by the recent SITLA proposed lease for oil exploration in the Book Cliffs region northeast of Green River.
I am a supporter of "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act". I believe all areas in Grand County as proposed in [that] bill should be designated as wilderness...I would hope that if nothing much in the way of wilderness protection comes of this [Bishop Public Lands Initiative] proposal…that President Obama might declare a "Greater Canyonlands [National Monument]" to protect a large region of this desert region.
Mike & Mary Suarez:
We moved here to our dream retirement and plan to live here the rest of our lives. We want to encourage you to support protecting a large amount of wilderness in Grand County. Where we live is unique and this is the legacy we can leave to the future generations. If these beautiful areas are destroyed or degraded they can never be replaced.
Grand County residents have repeatedly stood up to protect their public lands from industrialized encroachment. In the 1990's, they voted in favor of and implemented a restructuring of the county council, in large part to kill off the Grand County Special Services Road District and its plan to pave a highway to Vernal through the Book Cliffs wilderness area. In 2002, it was Grand County residents that pressured the Interior Board of Land Appeals to shut down the thumper trucks roaming across the Dome Plateau east of Arches National Park. County residents vociferously opposed the December 2008 BLM oil and gas lease that was later voided by the Department of Interior...[County] businesses have also raised their hands in support of public lands protection, with nearly 20 of them signing on to the November 2012 letter to President Obama urging him to establish a Greater Canyonlands National Monument...
I beg that the Grand County Council pay heed to the continued support county residents have demonstrated for the past 20 years in favor of protecting all public land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and come out in favor of doing much the same this time around. I know that all of us want to protect and provide public access to the very lands that drew us here as residents and business owners - and now make Grand County a destination site for the rest of the world. With my apologies to songwriter Joni Mitchell, I hope it doesn't come to pass that:
"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've had
Till it's gone.
They bladed paradise
And put up a drilling pad."
As the person who pioneered photography of the amazing landscapes on public lands near Moab, I am concerned about their preservation and protection from harm by outside interests whose use of the land involves bigger roads, huge landscape scars and many other negative impacts. The Book Cliffs, which are almost like the Rocky Mountain Serengeti, [have] been the target of this sort of activity for some time. More recently, the character of the lands east of Labyrinth Canyon and south of the airport have become heavily impacted.
I interact with visitors from around the world who come here for the beauty of our homeland and they are shocked at what is happening. Especially outraged are Americans who understand that this is their land by birthright and not solely the land of the state of Utah or the Grand County Council. I fear this is just the beginning of the destruction of our public lands in Grand County, and unless some kind of protection like a national monument or wilderness designation is quickly enacted, we will be very sorry.
Moab has become a mecca for photographers from around the world...Most of these people are on the top end of the income scale and spend a great deal of money in town. They have the whole world to choose from, and they chose to come here. Their impact on the land is negligible, and their impact on our infrastructure is also negligible. In short, they are the sought after perfect tourist. Already places they like to go like the Secret Spire and Tombstone Rock have changed greatly. When things change too much, and all you can see in Arches at night is a line of drill rigs at Dead Horse Point, they will leave and not return.
Deb Walter is the Glen Canyon Group Conservation Chair. She and husband, Dick, have the last word:
We see many reasons to designate much of our land in Grand County as wilderness. The main [reasons are] to protect our county against further industrial extraction and resulting water shortages and pollution, air pollution, habitat destruction, and economic and social instability.
Grand County must not develop new potash mines, must not drill any more oil and gas wells, and must not allow the mining or processing of tar sands or oil shale in the Book Cliffs. Those water and energy consumptive fuels are not the future of our county or our world but would mean complete habitat destruction and the end of water and air quality. We urge the Grand County Council to establish as much wilderness in our county as we possibly can. We have the opportunity now. Let's not lose it.