Rift grows over plan for San Rafael Swell

Congress is considering a bill that would change the management of the San Rafael Swell.

At a June 21 hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Federal Lands, John Curtis, who represents Utah’s third congressional district, testified on behalf of the bill, which he introduced. While Emery County officials and recreation groups hail the bill as a balanced, bi-partisan approach to public lands, some conservation groups are concerned that the details of the bill undermine its conservation purpose.

In his testimony before the committee, Curtis said the bill establishes 380,000 acres of conservation area and 575,000 acres of wilderness for a total of nearly a million acres of permanent conservation.

“We targeted the areas that are most broadly supported for the highest level of wilderness protection and we utilized the conservation area to highlight the unique history and multiple historic uses of the area. Next, we gave Utah state parks the ability to manage the area around Goblin Valley State Park that is most in need of upkeep. We also created the Temple Mountain Cooperative Management Area to better manage the outdoor recreation opportunities that are in the area. We also authorized the removal of state land trust parcels out of the conservation areas to be moved to other parts of the state that generate revenue for the benefit of Utah state school children. On top of all of this, we created the 2,500-acre Jurassic National Monument and designate 54 miles of wild and scenic river. It’s hard to look at this bill and not see it as a win for all stakeholders involved,” Curtis said.

The bill has garnered support from the Access Fund, Emery County Historic Preservation Commission, American Whitewater and the Outdoor Industry Association.

However, conservation groups including the Utah Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are concerned about “cherry-stemming,” the practice of exempting roads from wilderness or conservation area designations, resulting in long, thin strips of unprotected land. Both groups are also concerned that the bill does not go far enough, leaving out some areas that the Bureau of Land Management manages for wilderness characteristics. In a press release, SUWA said that Labyrinth Canyon and Desolation Canyon both merit protections that the bill does not provide.

“Large swaths of land have been excluded from this act,” Ashely Soltysiak, the Utah Sierra Club director, told The Times-Independent. “… We don’t think that it’s been adequately protective of archeological resources or areas with wilderness characteristics. Then there are roads that have been legislated through this act that are … have not been ground-truthed… That really pose issues for habitat fragmentation within this wilderness area. We are very concerned about the bill in its current form.”

The next stop for the bill is a vote in the House of Representatives.

ByBy Rose Egelhoff

The Times-Independent