Wild lands: protection or federal 'land grab?'
There was not enough room at the inn for the crowd, many of whom sported yellow or red badges depending on their point of view, that showed up on Friday at the Utah State Capitol for a meeting of the governor's Balanced Resource Committee.
But that didn't keep Bob Abbey, national director of the Bureau of Land Management from telling everyone that he doubted the issue of wild lands in the United States would ever be settled after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was also at the meeting said the BLM "should make a decision and live with it."
"I'm not sure we will ever get there," he told the the hundreds of people that were spread between the meeting room and two overflow conference rooms in the capitol complex. "I too wish for finality but there are over 100 laws that cover the management of these lands and the list goes on and on."
Abbey appeared in connection with an invitation issued by the governor in late December when he talked with Herbert on the phone both the day of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar's announcement on Dec. 23 that he was ordering the Bureau of Land Management to start looking at lands under their care and to start to reinventory them as to whether they fit the definition of wild or not, and the day after the announcement.
Herbert stated at the beginning of the meeting on Friday that he wasn't happy that he had had little warning about the decision and had not that he had not been conferred with concerning it. He felt the move might be counterproductive to the atmosphere that has become more conciliatory in the last couple of years between all the parties with interests in public lands.
"We've had some real successes," said Herbert to the group. "The issues in Nine Mile Canyon concerning the gas development by Bill Barrett Corporation is a good example. We believe we can find solutions, but something like this could cause problems and hurt the goodwill we have built. That's why I asked Mr. Abbey here today."
The meeting had a big buildup over the days before it as emails went out to many parties on both sides of the wild lands issue. People were asked come early because it would be crowded. Many land use advocates wore red badges into the meeting that were in the shape of a stop sign that said "Stop the land grab" while those pleased with the decision to look again at the wild designation on lands wore yellow round badges that said "Thanks" commending Abbey, Salazar and the Interior Department as a whole for making the decision.
The original room where the meeting was held filled up an hour before the meeting began and people began to stand around the sides of the room, but the Utah Highway Patrol asked anyone who wasn't sitting to move into an overflow room north of the original meeting area in the Senate Office Building. Eventually there were so many people, officials opened another overflow room in the House Office Building on the other side of the capitol complex. Many in the overflow rooms were unhappy with the arrangements, and openly complained. Some even suggested that the way it was set up was to favor land use advocates.
"I got here well over an hour before the meeting was to begin and the doors to the room were closed," stated Bill Murphy, who wore one of the yellow buttons. "There were about 20 people ahead of me in line to get in, but when they opened the doors to 210 (the room it was being held in) it was already filled with people that were seated and most of them were land use people."
But those that were seated in the room disputed that claim.
"I got to the room an hour and 45 minutes before the meeting began," said Dave Levanger of Carbon County. "When they opened the doors it was an empty room and we went in and sat down. It filled up pretty fast."
Despite the problems, however, people with various colored buttons sat with each other and visited and even gave up their seats for people of the opposition when they had to leave.
The meeting was conducted by the council as a preliminary to a regular meeting they were planning at 3:45 p.m., but because of the crowds instead of starting at 2 p.m. it began at 2:15 p.m. At that time Ted Wilson, the chair of the council, said that the Abbey meeting would be expanded until 4 p.m. but later said that they would need to shut it down by 3:30 p.m. This irritated some of the people who felt that the meeting was being cut short for political reasons.
While many in the audience were ATV and off road enthusiasts, most of the comments and questions were about economic development pertaining to minerals, gas and oil. Some of the comments were very direct and sharp.
"The administration in this county has shown that it is committed to job growth," said former state BLM Director Kathleen Clark who sits on the council. "But if this done wrong industry will flee this state and the economy will fall on its face. The federal government owns over half the land in the state and that is a big impact. I hope you will provide leadership to bring stability (to this situation)."
Abbey countered her statements by saying that there are many things that can affect a state's economy, with the BLM decisions only being part of that.
"Right now there are four million acres out in leases in the state and only one million are presently being drilled," he countered. "It really does boil down to economics and we will do our best to see our actions provide certainty for industry. But it is all about balance."
During the course of the meeting a number of people on the council asked Abbey and BLM State Director Juan Palma questions and statements about the Salazar decision and how it would be applied to the state.
"You can find land with wilderness characteristics about anywhere in Utah," said Lynn Stevens, a San Juan County Commissioner. "Am I to understand that the review of the two million acres already designated as wilderness study areas in the state are going to be reviewed using new methodology? Is what has been done before under question?"
Abbey said that, no, the BLM would be using the same criteria as what was used when the lands were originally inventoried.
"However, having said that, we will go back and review those places and see if they are consistent with the new order," he stated. "If the new review is inconsistent then we may have to go back and amend it."
State representative Mike Noel, who is on the committee, also had some words of disdain for the order and entire process. He referred to the past and what he said is broken promises. He also referred to RS2477 roads.
"I believe from the original act in 1976 (Land Use Act of 1976) and on promises were made that western states could keep their rights," he said. "Over the last 40 years these things have been compromised by radical environmentalists. It has become almost a shadow government. This stuff has hurt us. We need to take a look at these roads and get them to the people they belong to."
After the council had asked their questions and made their statements Wilson was ready to move to on to the comment and question cards that had been submitted by audience members. However former Utah Congressman Jim Hansen had been invited to the meeting and he wanted to make a statement. This became a point of contention in the meeting when council member Pat Shea objected saying that the rules stated that only council members would get the chance to ask questions directly. Wilson, said as chair that he was setting aside that rule for Hansen's statement. Shea walked out of the meeting.
"As far as I am concerned this order flies in the face of Congress," stated Hansen once he got the chance to speak. "Only Congress can designate wilderness. I don't envy your position (speaking to Abbey). There is no question this is going to be litigated."
Hansen also brought up the Red Rock Wilderness Bill saying that it had never passed a Congressional vote and was not the law.
Wilson was able to get a few of the comment cards read so Abbey could respond to them. While most of the statements made were either critical of the order and questioned the authority of the federal government to go down the road it is headed a few were for the review and the order.
"There was not enough room for all of us to get into the meeting room with you today Mr. Abbey," Wilson read from one card. "But we want you to know that there are hundreds of people outside of this room that want to thank you for doing this."
When the meeting was over people left in an orderly fashion and there was no trouble despite the fact that the groups at the meeting are so diametrically opposite each other. Many saw the meeting just as the beginning of another long fight.
"This pretty much is just bogus crap," said Carbon County Commissioner John Jones who had met earlier in the day with environmental groups and with Abbey. "It's a behind the scenes deal. I think we are in trouble because the Interior Department is being guided by environmental groups. People in our state need to wake up or we will loose our right to use public land for both economic and recreational use."
Scott Wheeler, a land use advocate who lives in Carbon County and also is part of the land use committee that has been negotiating on lands in Emery County felt the meeting was just a "dog and pony" show.
"(Abbey) was hear our words but he wasn't listening to what we were saying," stated Wheeler in a phone interview on Monday morning. "We have gone through these processes three times now and this new order is just going to cause more litigation. It is certainly going to complicate what has been going on in Emery County."
Levanger also had a take on the entire process.
"Here's what it boils down to," he said in a phone interview on Saturday morning. "Does the BLM have the right to both inventory the land and then manage it as wild? I think they have the right to inventory it; that's their job. But to designate it wild and then manage it that way? I don't think they have that right. Only Congress can make that decision."