The Wedge is a major feature of the San Rafael Swell. Known as "The Little Grand Canyon," the gorge was created by the San Rafael River, which cuts through the Swell. This and other features would be incorporated in any move to make the area a National Monument.
What some term an effort to preserve the beauty and integrity of Utah's natural wealth, others call a blatant land grab and oppressive use of federal authority. It's that difference which has propelled Sen. Bob Bennett to introduce legislation to prevent the Obama administration - or any other administration for that matter - from bypassing Congress in designating national monuments in the state.
This proposal comes on the heels of a leaked document from the Department of the Interior (DOI) which indicated that Cedar Mesa in San Juan County and San Rafael Swell in Emery are being considered as new monument designations.
"The Obama administration continues to put the needs of environmentalists, who want to keep the public away from public lands, above the needs and desires of Utahns," he said in a press statement released last week. "I feel it is essential, given past history, to introduce this legislation and ensure Utahns will have a role in determining how federal lands are managed in our state. We are fully capable of coming together to craft solutions to challenging land issues without heavy-handed outside intervention."
Senior Sen. Orrin Hatch is a co-sponsor of the legislation and Gov. Gary Herbert is also on board. Utah lands have been looked upon by the federal government for decades, coveting the varied natural pristine beauty or the rich energy and mineral deposits therein. The 1906 Antiquities Act allows a president to circumvent Congress to designate certain areas for national monument - but not national park - status. And while this may please those in the green movement, most of these designations are done without the input of public, state or local officials.
Some of these local officials, including Carbon County Commissioner John Jones also strongly back Bennett's proposed legislation. "Any time the federal government wants to take over state land, they should look at the county's plan," he said. "After all, we're the people on the ground maintaining these lands. And we must have done a good job, to have someone in Washington want them so bad. Ultimately, though, it's the locals who care for these places, not some politician who may never have stepped foot here. I think these designations do great harm to the local areas."
He added that the area in question is about 75 by 40 miles but "there is no map, no notification and no process. This will probably encompass, when all is said and done, parts of Emery and Carbon counties."
Fellow commissioner Mike Milovich concurred, saying, "I applaud Bennett's efforts. There has been no public input and no inter-local interaction with the Interior Department. Since I've been in office in 1991 there seems to be a concerted effort of these land grabs to satisfy wilderness or environmental advocates. These groups are using whatever means necessary to accomplish this. They have the ear of the administration right now and it's 'damn the process, full steam ahead.'"
In a simultaneous maneuver, Utah First District Congressman Rob Bishop, Western Caucus Chairman and ranking member of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, also introduced legislation in the House that would safeguard Utah from arbitrary presidential monument designations and ensure that all future national monument designations only occur through an open and transparent process that includes input from local officials, residents and stakeholders.
"I'm tired of this administration targeting our lands in Utah and trying to control more of our state. There is a right way to make land designations and there is a wrong way," Bishop said. "Arbitrarily locking up huge swaths of our state with the stroke of a pen, absent any input from local communities, is clearly the wrong way."
The San Rafael Swell is a kidney-shaped upthrust of about 900 square miles of desert, domes, steep hogback ridges, and canyons - almost entirely within Emery County. In September 1871, as John Wesley Powell was leading his second expedition down the Green River, he and Stephen Vandiver Jones hiked from the river to investigate the San Rafael Reef. Another expedition member, Walter Clement Powell, wrote in his journal that the Indians called the strange formations "Sau-auger-towip" or Stone House Lands.
The town of Green River sprang up in 1878 at the Old Spanish Trail crossing of the Green River. Soon afterwards, in 1883, the Denver and Rio Grand Western Railroad track was built to Green River and Price. Conductors began pointing out to passengers the same ragged skyline of the San Rafael Reef where Gunnison had imagined temples, buildings, and ruined cities, and they called it "the silent city." Adding to this colorful history, on April 21, 1897 Butch Cassidy and Elza Lay robbed the coal mine payroll at Castle Gate, Carbon County. They galloped their horses into the Swell and escaped. They were only two of probably dozens of outlaws who found a haven there over the years.
In addition, the striking pictographs found on cliff faces in Barrier Canyon and throughout the San Rafael Swell and in the nearby Horseshoe Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park are almost certainly 2,000 years old, and may be much older. Archaeologists date a sandal from Walters Cave in Horseshoe Canyon as about 8,875 years old.
The Swell is a popular destination for hikers, photographers, and off-road vehicle users. During times of high water, rubber rafts and inner tubes carry adventurers along the San Rafael and Dirty Devil rivers. So much of this uninhabited country is scenic and natural that the Swell has been proposed repeatedly as a national park, although local residents have generally opposed the idea.
"I agree with what they (Bennett, Hatch, Bishop, et al) are trying to do," said county commissioner Bill Krompel, trying set a bit more conciliatory tone in the debate. "Just taking the land without our input creates nothing but polarization, resentment and possibly loss of jobs. Responsible multi-use is the best way to go in my opinion. Instead of a mandate from on high, I think we are better served by bringing all of the stakeholders together, the environmental, ranching, energy interests. Cooler heads need to prevail here.
In 2002, then Utah governor Mike Leavitt proposed the creation of a San Rafael Swell National Monument. A surprised Emery County populace managed to have the monument designation concept placed on the ballot as a referendum where it was narrowly defeated. And Pres. George W. Bush, who had authority to create such a monument under the Antiquities Act, never acted on Leavitt's proposal.
This wasn't the first time Utahns had a beef with the federal government over land designation acts. In 1996, Pres. Bill Clinton designated 1.9 million acres within Garfield and Kane Counties as the Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument under authority of the Antiquities Act. This designation was made without consultation with state or local authorities and Clinton made the announcement while visiting a neighboring state. Many believe that the San Rafael Swell was also a candidate for designation at that time.
"Regardless of how you felt about Clinton's Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, most Utahns took issue with the colossal abuse of government power in its designation," said Hatch. "It was wrong to abuse the Antiques Act then and it would be just as wrong to do it now."
For his part, though, Krompel countered that while many Utahns were angry at the Grand Staircase designation, the administration did grant twice as many drilling rights permits as George W. Bush in his comparable eight years in office. "We certainly do not want people to ride roughshod over the land," he added. "We need some kind of local, state and federal cooperation."
In 1998 and 2000, Emery County attempted to pass federal legislation which would designate some limited wilderness areas in an effort to finalize the issue. The concepts of National Heritage Areas and National Conservation Areas were also part of these legislative efforts. Both bills were unsuccessful.
Just last year, however, the America's Red Rock Wilderness Act was introduced in the 111th Congress. The act proposed designation of 9.4 million acres of wilderness in Utah - 1.4 million acres in Emery County alone. Rep.Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) sponsored the bill in the House, with 134 co-sponsors. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) sponsored the bill in the Senate and claimed 21 co-sponsors. Even actor Robert Redford has weighed in on the side of passage, claiming that of all the "impacts of global warming on national parks, Zion is one of the 25 most imperiled."
Having testified in Washington, DC against the Red Rock Act, Jones argued that these moves do harm to local areas. "Many farmers cannot water their stock in the ponds on these lands anymore, and even wildlife are not able to get water in these federally-maintained areas and will suffer," he said. "When I heard Rep. Hinchey testify about the bill I was amazed. New York has only a small fraction of federally-owned land compared to our 60 percent. I've lived in these lands most of my life, now some guy in Washington wants it for a protected area. I'm all for protection, but these layers are taking rights away from our citizens who want to enjoy these places, as well."
Milovich added, "When these areas are federalized, many are locked down. That means no vehicles are authorized; not even those for people who may need such devices to get around. They're not allowed to enjoy the same natural resources as other people? These Eastern lobbies are making decisions for Western states - often without even coming here. They just pull things out of the air and claim them as facts.
"There are a lot of jobs and livelihoods hanging in the balance," he added. "Industries which have proven they can operate in an environmentally safe way. But, unfortunately, in this current atmosphere, they won't be heard."