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Front Page » September 1, 2009 » Carbon County News » Debate continues on wilderness
Published 1,935 days ago

Debate continues on wilderness


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By COLLIN MCRANN
Sun Advocate writer

Carbon County is one of three Utah counties involved in a lawsuit with the BLM and the U.S. Department of Interior over a number of oil and gas leases. Last winter, 77 leases were pulled from a number of Utah counties. While arguments are ongoing as to the legalities of the action, 16 of these leases were in Carbon County, according to the lawsuit's documents.     

The pulling of the leases has caused concern among many who live in Carbon County, including local officials. The action also raises a wide range of issues involving public lands and their usage. A large percentage of public land in the western United States is federally-owned. Many questions remain as to how it should be managed, especially where natural resources are concerned. In Utah, by most estimates, over half the state's land area is federally-owned; making it a battleground for land usage issues.      

One such conflict concerns the Red Rocks Wilderness (RRW), a 9.5 million acre wilderness plan that has been in the works for almost 20 years and includes significant portions of eastern Carbon County. Although the plan is really nothing new to most locals, the county has been making an effort to resolve the issue through its own wilderness proposal, although many technicalities are still waiting to be sorted out.

"It's a little bit more than we would like to see, (the RRW)" said Carbon County planner Rex Sacco.

Many areas in Carbon County under consideration by the RRW plan only lightly qualify for wilderness, since they have been developed fooil, gas and coal. Other areas meet qualifications, but county officials would like to see only a small portion of what is proposed to actually become wilderness.

"What we need to do is agree on how much wilderness inhibits economic growth. That doesn't mean we can go reap and pillage, but we want multiple use," said Sacco.

Multiple-use is defined by the federal government as the use of land for more than one purpose, for both recreation, and extraction of natural resources. Under a wilderness classification, no motorized traffic is allowed, as the classification is intended to preserve the "naturalness" and "primitive" status of the land. Two studies done for potential wilderness in Carbon County include the Desolation Canyon and Jack Canyon studies. Jack Canyon was not recommended to become wilderness because, according to the study done in 1991, "Primitive recreation would be directly lost on up to 161 acres because of oil and gas developments."

Parts of the Desolation Canyon study were recommended for wilderness and encompass around 224,000 acres; which includes parts of Carbon and Grand counties. 

One group that supports the RRW is the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a group that has offices in both Salt Lake and Moab. According to SUWA executive director Scott Groene in Moab, most of the study areas have been managed as wilderness since the 1980s when the studies were conducted.

"Obviously, I'm pro wilderness," said Groene. "If we could, we would like to resolve this issue (with the county)." He added that SUWA would like to avoid a fight in Washington D.C. and hopes a compromise can be reached. 

SUWA has filed lawsuits against Carbon County that issues a restraining order on leasing. According to Groene, the legal process is ongoing and could take a while before any conclusion is reached.

"Most rural counties like to have a wilderness bill that brings familiarity to the issue," said Dave Lavanger, Carbon County Director of Planning. Carbon County has a wilderness proposal, but it is an ongoing project and is currently being mapped more accurately. 

"One of the things that is critical when talking about this is that all wilderness areas need to be at least three miles from motorized travel," said Lavanger.

Many of the north RRW portions of Carbon County contain roads, which were built before 1970, technically disqualifying them from wilderness. However according Groene, SUWA has brought forth the issue of "cherry-stemming roads" with counties. Cherry-stemming occurs when areas around roads are classified as wilderness, but the roads themselves are not. SUWA has had problems with this distinction in the past as they say it can be taken advantage of.

The county, however, is just as firm as SUWA in its stance on wilderness. Because many legal issues surround the whole undertaking, it's not likely to end soon.

"We have the right to use federal lands to build our economy," said Carbon commissioner John Jones. "Carbon County's proposal (for wilderness) includes the most primitive areas."  

In order for the RRW to become official, it requires an act of Congress and has about 21 co-sponsors in the United States Senate according to SUWA. 

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