Southern Utah environmental group’s new aggressive tone isn’t going to help its cause

Originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, May 19th, 2018

The recently submitted Emery County land bill has all the makings of what has become an all-too-common public land conflict in Utah: local vs. national management, urban vs. rural communities, wilderness vs. OHVs. If we can find a way to throw a Bundy into this thing, we’ll have sagebrush rebellion BINGO.

The problem, much like in the case of Bears Ears, is that a group of people who’ve been working for years on a solution now find themselves stuck in the middle of a political conflict that could derail the whole project.

The Emery County Public Lands Council is a group of volunteers who offer their free time in an effort to steward public land in Emery County. Over 90 percent of the county is public land, so it makes sense to want input. The San Rafael Swell makes up the majority of that land and sees nearly the same visitation as Canyonlands National Park.

Members of the council, to their credit, have been working on a solution to management for years. That doesn’t mean they have more right to the land than any other U.S. citizen. But they’ve certainly put more effort into it.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has also been working on a solution to the Swell for years. They’re passionate people, many of them also volunteers, with a clear mission to represent the national interests for wilderness on federal lands. Despite what some folks might think, that’s a pretty virtuous mission.

For the most part, these groups have been on the same page when it comes to the Swell. They have their disagreements, yes. But so do most of us when we sit down for dinner. The problem is that recently the conversation took a divisive turn.

Last week SUWA launched aggressive ads that call the bill an attack on public lands. With the hashtag #DontWreckTheSwell, they frame the public lands council’s work as the same effort to rescind Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. SUWA may have good intentions, but that’s not a fair characterization.

I actually agree with most of the problems SUWA has with this bill. It would enshrine a BLM travel plan that was overturned in federal court. It fails to protect the Grand County side of Labyrinth Canyon. It should do more to deal with scattered state lands and create front country vs. backcountry developments. But these are hardly attacks on public land. They’re legislative disagreements. The kind, I might add, that have solutions if people choose to work together.

Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch, for their part, have failed to listen to the interests of wilderness advocates. They’ve jumped into the process at the tail end, and they’re siding with their base, unsurprisingly. But that’s not what representatives are tasked to do. They’re tasked with representing all interests. Even the ones who want a few more acres of solitude.

In his book “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry said that “conservationists who are merely organized function as specialists who have lost sight of basic connections.” He’s talking about humanity. Our connectivity. That everything is a part of the whole. Most people understand the basics of ecology in our physical environment, that a single action can impact the whole of the ecosystem. But few seem to realize the effect they have on what I’d call the ecology of community.

SUWA’s recent shift in tone will only contribute to the growing divide between rural and urban communities. Division begets more division.

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