Group pushes for shared access
For many years public lands policy has been a much-talked about topic, often bringing a lot of controversy with it. In Utah the issue has been a major topic of debate, especially since a controversial order from the Interior Department was issued in December.
On Dec. 23, 2010, the Interior Department led by Secretary Ken Salazar issued a secretarial order, No. 3310, that was created to restore the balance and clarity to the management of public lands by establishing common-sense policy for the protection of back country areas where Americans recreate, find solitude and enjoy the wild, according to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) press release.
The order affirmed the protection of the wilderness characteristics of public lands was a high priority for the BLM. The BLM would have maintained a current inventory of land under its jurisdiction and identify within that inventory lands with wilderness characteristics that are outside of the areas designated as Wilderness Study Areas and that are pending before Congress or units of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The order basically would have given the BLM authority to re-inventory the federal acres and characterize them as "wild lands."
While many groups have opposed the Interior Department's order, one group in Utah is doing everything within its power to keep the lands open to the public. The Utah Shared Access Alliance, or USA-ALL, has been talking to politicians from local municipalities to state officials and even those located in Washington, D.C.
Mike Swenson, an executive director with USA-ALL, said he has been going all over the state to talk with everyone affected by public lands issues. He regularly spends time working with local communities around the state including county commissioners, land managers and others in trying to garner support to help fight these issues. Swenson, who has been with the group since 2004, said one of the group's main objectives is fighting to keep responsible access to public lands in Utah.
"Land use issues have existed for years, even before the organization was created," Swenson said. "It's always been contentious in rural areas, especially in rural Utah."
When he first started with USA-ALL, a non-profit organization started in 1998, Swenson very rarely heard about wild lands issues. But now political candidates are spending more time discussing the topic due to the growing interest among the population. In the last election cycle, many candidates spent a lot more time talking about the issue, a sign that the hard work has been paying off after years of hard work, he said.
"It's nice to know we've made a difference but we're not going to take the time to pat ourselves on the back," he said.
Wild lands are a major issue, particularly in Carbon and Emery Counties, Swenson said.
"The decisions that are made by politicians have a significant impact on these local areas," he said. "People in Utah are tired of being kicked around for political reasons."
The San Rafael Swell is one of the areas that was looked at as being labeled under wild lands and is one of, if not the hottest places of topic right now in the U.S., he said.
When the words multiple use are used in connection with wild lands, Swenson said it breaks down into balancing multiple uses on the land such as livestock grazing, recreation, oil and gas developments, mineral extraction.
"It's basically the greatest amount of use for the greatest amount of good," he said.
In Utah there is an abundance of public land that the public gets to enjoy, which can be viewed as "a blessing and a curse" at the same time, Swenson said. However because they are considered federal public lands, the decisions come both from a local standpoint but also from Washington, D.C. where politicians are dictating how public lands will be used in the western part of the country, he said.
"Utah is no exception," Swenson said. "This is obviously problematic because they [politicians] may or may not care about our local communities." He said politicians may be using political land agendas or management decisions for political gain.
While USA-ALL has made progress in fighting land use issues, one of the biggest challenges facing them is one that they continue to fight around every turn: apathy.
"The public has to understand these issues. They need to know that if they ride a four-wheeler on public lands or not, whether they snowmobile or not, these access issues affect their wallet, they affect their kids education, property taxes, ability for local municipalities to gather tax revenue for infrastructure and more," he explained.
"It affects every single citizen of our state," he said noting that people need to understand the public lands issues and have their voices heard.
Swenson said his work with USA-ALL has taken him to Washington, D.C. two times this year and probably more in the near future.
"The issues with wild lands has to be talked about with constituents," he said. "Instead of being re-active, we're becoming more pro-active."
USA-ALL has about 11,000 donors currently and Swenson said the push to get more people involved with the group continues every day. One of the next big events USA-ALL is involved in is the Take Back Utah Land Access Rally in Salt Lake City on Aug. 20.
To learn more about USA-ALL, visit www.usaall.org or visit their page on Facebook.
Visit the podcast section on Sunad.com to hear Swenson discuss more about wild lands issues with C.J. McManus.