After wrongly complaining in a recent letter to the editor that I had been untruthful in my presentation to Emery County Public Land Council about wilderness, Wade Allinson (Letters to the editor, Sun Advocate, Feb. 17, 2009) stumbled on some key facts.
Getting the facts right is crucial to the wilderness debate. Honesty and good faith are necessary for any conversation about public lands and wilderness. In that spirit, let me respond to Mr. Allinson's claims.
First, Mr. Allinson claims that the State of Utah was shorted in the land exchange involving the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument because the state got less land in the trade than did the federal government. But he left out a key fact. The federal government also gave the state a hefty cash payment of $50 million. Further, the lands the state received were rich in coal, oil and gas, and other minerals, including $13 million to be generated in Emery County from the Cottonwood tract. Weigh this against the uncertainty of the Andalex mine that was hung up at the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining due to design concerns and questions about its ability to withstand flash flooding. When you've got all the facts, it's clear the deal benefited Utah's school trust fund.
Also, access to school trust lands is a long-recognized legal right. These parcels can never be locked up or "sanitized" as Mr. Allinson claims.
As for the oil and gas leases that Secretary Salazar recently rescinded, they were on BLM lands with extraordinary scenic and economic value. Several were close to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, near Dinosaur National Monument, and near places like Nine Mile Canyon and elsewhere which contained irreplaceable archaeological wonders. With the oil and gas industry currently holding nearly 3.5 million acres of oil and gas leases in Utah - but placing less than one million acres in production, together with dropping oil and gas prices, the development of these parcels was uncertain at best. Even if these lands were put into production, it's estimated that under the very best conditions a paltry 1.5 hours of oil and 1.5 days of natural gas would have been produced at current rates of use. And a full 47 percent of the people who responded to a web poll in this paper supported Secretary Salazar's decision.
Nor does wilderness "take away" water rights, which are determined according to Utah law. Mr. Allinson's statement to the contrary just isn't true. At the most, Congress may reserve water rights for wilderness, but, for better or worse, that just puts wilderness water rights at the end of the line, behind every other appropriator.
And he is wrong about wilderness banning the use of motorized vehicles for grazing permittees to maintain fences, stock ponds and the like. Where practical alternatives don't exist, the occasional used of motorized vehicles can be allowed, such as a backhoe to maintain stock ponds.
Will roads be closed with wilderness? Not real ones. But there will be a balance established between places where ORV riding is allowed, and other areas left quiet for our families and wildlife. Most visitors to the San Rafael Swell's magnificent places probably agree that ORV use should be better managed in spots and that the damage should be fixed. Wilderness is one way to do that.
As I've talked with many Emery County residents, elected officials and other stakeholders, I've been struck by how much we agree on keeping this place as wild and beautiful as it is today, for us, and for our children. Our fundamental values are not that much different. We may not agree on every point, and every once in a while, SUWA will be a burr under someone's saddle. And vice versa. But communication, with a full understanding of the facts, is invaluable.
I look forward to continuing this dialog with the Emery County Public Lands Council and the County Commissioners.