Changes in the political landscape portend the revival of a public land debate pitting families on four-wheelers against solitude-seeking hikers, technical rock climbers against cash-strapped search and rescue teams, and Emery County locals against urban visitors.
A new book by Brigham Young University geographer Jeffrey Durrant titled “Struggle over Utah’s San Rafael Swell” gives a first-hand account of a series of attempts in the past decade to give all or parts of the million-acre expanse special designation.
With a new set of local leaders, a change in control of Congress and an open presidential race, Durrant offers five insights in anticipation of renewed attempts to settle the fate of the Swell, and by extension, other public lands throughout the West.
“Whether you like it or not, public lands are going to be more and more restrictively managed,” Durrant said. “It might come in spurts and fits and starts. With areas such as the Swell, there’s always going to be pressure to do some kind of a special designation.”
The first insight Durrant provides is to accept and engage the entire place that created the landscape, including local communities.
“Local citizens are not always knowledgeable, wise and caring stewards of the land,” Durrant said. “But the communities around the Swell have a much higher interest in conservation than they are given credit for by environmental groups and the media.”
Durrant’s second point is to not let “perfect” situations become the enemy of “good” solutions. For example, local leaders from the San Rafael area put together a proposal in 2000 to make one million acres a national conservation area and legally prohibit new mining claims. Environmental organizations, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, objected to other parts of the proposal and the effort failed.
“In killing something that was not perfect, environmentalists missed an opportunity that may never come up again,” Durrant said.
As a third insight, geared to those unwilling to accept any restrictions, Durrant promotes recognition that new uses may not be compatible with maintenance of existing landscapes. Much of the squabbling over whether an area is wilderness stems from how to define an existing road.
“Just because someone once took a ranch truck or old mining Jeep down a certain path doesn’t mean that a herd of ATVs will maintain the same look or feel of the landscape,” Durrant wrote.
After six years of attendance at the weekly Public Lands Council meetings in Emery County, Durrant’s fourth insight is to seek broad involvement nationally and deep involvement locally.
The final insight is for the Bureau of Land Management to not mimic the National Park Service model of building visitor attractions, roads and interpretive signs.
“These are what local communities, many environmental activists, and numerous users who flock to the wide open public lands don’t want,” Durrant wrote.
Durrant also profiles the Swell’s multiple identities. Depending on whom you ask, places like Temple Mountain, The Wickiup, Joe and His Dog, Mexican Mountain and Old Woman Wash mean entirely different things because of the multiple-use nature of public lands.
As the Swell’s popularity increases, so does the frequency of contention between the different crowds. Peaceful nature hikes cross paths with raucous motorbike rides. Technical rock climbers who get into trouble tax the resources of local search and rescue teams. Emery county locals find their traditional Easter weekend spots crowded with urban visitors from the Wasatch Front and neighboring Colorado.
Refereeing the conflict is the Bureau of Land Management, an agency whose focus has shifted from issuing mining and grazing permits to balancing the new set of demands on public lands like the Swell. Durrant’s regular appearances at public meetings allowed him to observe that just a handful of people shape the course of debate.
“Thousands of people have strong opinions about the Swell, but only a few are drawing the maps, deciding details of proposals, testifying at public meetings, and defending a position with the media,” Durrant said.
Accordingly, Durrant takes a close look at half a dozen key players. One of them is Randy Johnson, a former Emery County commissioner and a proponent of making the Swell a national monument in 2002. The 2002 monument proposal rested on the idea that the Bush administration would allow local input on land management decisions. Johnson grew up in Huntington and recalls the local tradition of spending Easter weekend camping with family out in the Swell. When idea of a national monument fell out of favor with local voters, Johnson lost his seat on the county commission.
Another figure who still shapes public discussion is Scott Groene, a lawyer who now heads SUWA. The book includes Groene’s personal account of how growing up in the Midwest with limited access to reservoirs gave him an appreciation for public lands.
In regular field trips to the Swell, Durrant checked out each site called into question with each new map and proposal. Along the way, he ran across some odd characters, including four slightly intoxicated, middle-aged men from western Colorado who eagerly demonstrated a novel way of playing with guns that they called “pistol golfing.” As Durrant and two rangers from Goblin Valley State Park took cover, one of the men placed a golf ball atop a Coke bottle, got on his hands and knees and from point-blank range sent the ball a few hundred yards toward a set of cliffs.
“The golfing gunman went on to explain that by positioning the pistol at different spots or angles he could put either a draw or fade on the golf ball – the downside being each new ball was good for only one shot,” Durrant wrote. “He was convinced that Titleist balls worked best.”
The book is published by the University of Arizona Press. More information is online at www.uapress.arizona.edu.
Writer: Charlene Winters