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The Wasatch Behind: A swell land strategy

Guest Contributor

Last week Jeannie and I went to a public land use meeting in Emery County. The room was packed and there were people there from all over the state. Some of us know and love Emery County.

To my surprise, the Emery County land board is considering running up a white flag and offering to surrender a good deal of the Swell to the federal government for permanent wilderness designation. Who'd a thunk? I would never have guessed. It seems they want a final resolution of all of the wilderness study areas, closed roads and the perpetual hassle of fighting over public land use.

Their model is Washington County where a similar tactic was tried last year. Senator Bennett and Rep. Matheson wrote a compromise wilderness bill that was submitted as part of a larger, nationwide wilderness act. In the end, Washington County ended up with a 166-mile wilderness corridor along the Virgin River and 13,000 acres of unexpected, added-on wilderness called the Black Rock Ridge. Overall, Washington County gave up about 250,000 acres. That land is now closed to any type of development.

You might remember, in that deal the feds traded "other" lands for wilderness. Park City got a green belt to help keep poor people from building houses near town and St. George got some federal land a few developers can make a lot of money subdividing. Bennett said it was a good deal for the people of Utah. You decide.

And now the people of Washington County think they are safe. The federal wilderness monster has been satiated and SUWA will surely leave them alone in the future.

Good luck.

And so, Emery County is considering the same thing. They might be willing to surrender a big chunk of the Swell for wilderness in the hopes of finally getting the feds off their backs and the 26-year conflict over wilderness resolved. They hope they can give a quart of wilderness and sign a deal before the feds take a gallon of wilderness and force it on them without a deal. That might be a good strategy in theory, but a deal with the devil just the same.

Can they trust congress to negotiate honorably once this can of worms is opened? Who controls the agenda once the process starts? What role will SUWA and the BLM have in the process? Can Emery County break off talks if the thing turns ugly? Is now a good time to run this flag up the pole?

And then, why is Emery County fighting this battle alone? Why aren't all of the counties in Utah united on this? Where is our state leadership? And why aren't all of the Western states united? Why don't we have one strategy and one organization to fight this thing? How can we possibly hope to keep our public lands open when we are fighting as individual counties against the full weight and power of the federal government?

It's no wonder we've been losing this battle. Divide and conquer is the first maxim of war.

And where are our senators and representatives? Why are they so willing to compromise and sell us out? Why don't they challenge things like wilderness study areas that effectively lock up millions of acres as de-facto wilderness? Why don't they write an energy bill that prohibits government from taking millions of acres of oil, gas, and coal away from the American people? It's a matter of protecting the future of our nation. We need the energy, jobs and tax revenues. These things are sure to be more important than wilderness in the future.

Overall, I think the best proposal I heard at the land use meeting was for the counties to unite and file suit against wilderness using the American's With Disabilities Act. It is against the law for government to lock any of her citizens out of our national parks, national recreation areas and BLM administered lands. It's all public land with a capital "P". Accommodations must be made for those with special needs; it's the law. People in wheelchairs and old geezers like me need motorized access. Can the feds legally lock us out? I don't think so. We need to test this in court.

And so, in my humble opinion, Emery County and the state of Utah should go on the offensive. Let SUWA fight to keep children with special needs, disabled war veterans and old people off our public lands.

That should make for entertaining political theater. I can't wait to hear their arguments.

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