Different shades of gray
Each month the Sun Advocate presents two views of the same subject as columnists Terry Willis and Tom McCourt see it.
Let the land heal
A few weeks ago a protest by a disability group made the headlines around the state when they protested a road closure by the BLM. The road had been closed for some time.
When I was approached to debate this, I was a bit hesitant to take it on. After all for six years I worked at Active Re-Entry fighting for the rights for people with disabilities to have access to places in our community they have been unable to go before.
I am also an advocate for protecting sensitive areas so that we can have good water, air and environment. So I was a bit reluctant to take on this issue until I thought about it a while. While I do have empathy for the man who used to work in the mine in that area, I do not agree with his stand that he can break the law to access the road that was closed by the BLM because of riparian area damage.
The ADA was enacted to help gain access to people with disabilities where they have been traditionally discriminated in the past. Our own community has done a lot of work to try and alleviate barriers that have existed. It would be an ideal world if we could find ways to give everyone access to any place they wanted, but we have to face the reality it is not feasible or reasonable.
I am a fairly healthy and athletic person and I still have to face the fact there are places that I can't go. Why? Because of a variety of reasons, but ability wise I do not have the stamina and physical ability for some places. So should I expect that if I want to access a mountain top, there should be a road to it because someone else can get there by climbing it? I don't think so.
We have the moral obligation to make sure that most places that we go on a day to day basis are accessible. We have a ways to go for that. Our sidewalks in Price do not measure up to that yet. Where are the people that are fighting to change that? We do have a small, but vocal group trying to get those changes made and slowly we are making progress. If I ended up using a wheel chair for my mobility, I would find it difficult to even go around my block. Should I be allowed to drive a four wheeler around on the sidewalk, because I have been able to walk around the block and now I can't and there are no curb cuts so I can use a wheelchair or an electric cart?
An area that is designated wilderness does not prohibit access by individuals who cannot walk. Wheelchairs are allowed into designated wilderness areas. The BLM uses the same standard for access when it closes a road. There are some very rugged and powerful "wheelchairs" available for individuals to be able to access outdoor recreation. True, they are costly, but about the same as a good four wheeler these days.
I really get irritated when people say that if you can't get to an area by a gas powered vehicle (SUV or ATV) then it can only be accessed by the elitist backpacker. I have also heard it said that wilderness and other closed to vehicle areas exclude family activities and cater to the rich. Well the last time I checked a really good backpack or day pack cost much less than an ATV. It is a cheap activity for us to pack up a lunch and go for a hike. My two year old is able to go. We don't go far, but who cares.
We are constantly modifying where we go to recreate due to changes in our life circumstances. It is a fact of life and just something we have to deal with. The gentleman who commented that is "prettier than I remember" might also wonder if maybe it has gotten nicer because it has had a chance to heal from mining and vehicle use.
Let's face it; there are plenty of places for people to go ATVing. But the machines get bigger and more powerful every year. As an area gets damaged from an ATV, bike, SUV, horse or hiking use, it may need to be closed to let it heal. If we respect those issues, then maybe we can optimize access to as much space as possible for every type of use. Road closures in this community are a touchy subject and need to be done only after there is no other recourse. But as our population grows and our toys are more powerful and prevalent, then we are going to have to face some hard realities. Traditionally, our ancestors found a way to explore and settle these lands without four wheelers. Do not spoil what you have, respect the fact that to protect water sheds and critical habitat, some areas will be closed to certain types of access.
Let's also make sure we are doing our part to make our own community as accessible as possible.
Let my people go
Last year Jeannie and I went to visit Sid's Leap on the San Rafael River. We had to walk six miles (three in and three out) because the BLM had a barrier across the road with signs that motor vehicles were no longer permitted beyond that point. Across the barrier everything looked the same as on the "vehicle approved" side. The road was the same, the land was the same, the vegetation was the same, the rocks and wildlife were the same. The only difference was, we had to walk.
Hiking down that well-established old road we didn't see any land that needed healing. The most unsightly thing in the whole landscape was the intrusive barrier with the garish signs. That old road was a natural part of the landscape we grew up in. It didn't interfere with our "wilderness experience."
Americans love our public lands and we all want to go there. Unfortunately, some people want to deny us that opportunity. As we all know, the real issue behind BLM road closures is an ever-increasing number of people visiting the back country and powerful advocacy groups who want it closed. Green people value "wilderness" and "solitude" above any other consideration, and they want the back country all to themselves. To them, motorized vehicles are a blight on the land. Cars make tracks and bring in too many visitors. People are bad for the land. People leave "scars" that need healing.
For a sympathetic BLM, the easiest way to reduce visitation and "protect" the land is to cut vehicle access. That way they can eliminate most of the population: those who are very young, old, infirm, handicapped, or have jobs and can't, or won't, take the time to backpack in. It's a solution that makes the Sierra Club happy, but is it fair?
I applaud the actions of Richard Beardall, Monte Swasey, and the others who participated in the protest at Hidden Splendor last October. For those of you who don't remember, the group moved a BLM barricade and rode ATVs down the old, well-established, and recently "forbidden" road to the Muddy River. A fine example of American resolve, love of freedom, and pioneer fighting spirit, in my opinion. Again for those of you who don't remember, Beardall is confined to a wheelchair and Swasey is an old guy.
Actually, there are seven closed roads in Emery County that have caused controversy in recent years: Mexican Mountain, Seeger's Hole, Sid's Leap, Red Hole Draw, Link Flat, June's Bottom, and Copper Globe. And there are three separate issues on the table here. The purpose for the road closures, the legality of the BLM actions, and the question of denied access.
First let's explore the reason for the closures. Two of the roads were closed in the 1990s as wilderness study areas. The others were closed in 2003 as part of a BLM travel plan. The closures are not about "healing the land." They are access restrictions pure and simple. Wilderness groups want the roads closed and BLM is happy to comply. It's easier to manage land when the gates are locked. Ask any rancher.
As for legalities, the State of Utah and Emery County filed suit in federal court last year. The premise of the lawsuit is that all seven roads belong to Emery County and were closed illegally by the BLM. The case has yet to be resolved.
As for denied access, that issue is the deepest controversy in the struggle for wilderness. How do we limit access without denying access to whole segments of our society? For most wilderness advocates the answer is simple: "Too bad." To them it's a form of natural selection. Only the healthiest, strongest, and most able-bodied win the prize. Can you imagine the outcry if we said that about access to public parks? What is different about access to public lands? And to say that handicapped people are not excluded because wheelchairs are allowed in wilderness areas? Get real. Talk about elitist, condescending attitudes.
Keeping old, well defined, and often used R.S. 2477 county roads open hurts no one and makes the back country accessible to everyone. We all own the public lands and we should all be able to enjoy them. Limiting access only to those who are healthy, fit, and in the prime of life is shameful and probably illegal. Maybe it's time for groups like AARP and Active Re-Entry to file suit.
So, if a few crippled up old geezers in Jeeps, or handicapped people riding ATVs ruins your wilderness experience, maybe it's you who are in the wrong place. There is no real wilderness in Utah anyway, and there hasn't been since people like the Swaseys cut those old roads into places like Hidden Splendor. If it's wilderness you want, go where you can enjoy true wilderness, places like Antarctica, the Amazon, or the North Pole.
In conclusion, I quote former Grand County Commissioner Ray Tibbetts. In a meeting held in Moab a few years ago, he said something like this: "If it's solitude you people want, you don't have to close access to thousands of acres of public lands. You can find solitude in a culvert under Interstate 70."