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Getting Snowed in the San Rafael Swell

by mike reberg

Communications Coordinator,
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Randy Johnson cleans up right nice. And that's been a problem for the environmental crowd as of late.

Like some character from a cowboy poetry reading, the anti-wilderness commissioner from down Emery County way is playing a role... passing himself off as a reasonable, salt of the earth cowboy trying to find compromise on the thorny issue of public lands conservation. And he's been doing a good job of it too. He and 3rd District congressman Chris Cannon, playing a similar character, have got a lot of jaded, DC beltway types thinking the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act, a bill that's winding its way through the halls of Congress, is something special; a new, public lands middle ground.

Evoking the imagery of Butch Cassidy, who outlawed his way around the San Rafael region 100 years ago, Johnson's even got the Interior Department folks sopping up the tall tale.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, desperate for a conservation legacy, is calling the measure a "wilderness neutral" first step toward real protection for the region. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Larry Young recently called the legislation voodoo conservation. Environmentalists think the bill does more harm than good because it fails to protect over a million acres of wilderness quality public lands in central Utah. Babbitt, playing his own role, is promising environmentalists they will get their wilderness later on, down the road.

But not if Cannon gets his way. The bill is a probe of sorts for the two-term Republican, a first push in what environmentalists believe is an effort to dismantle the 1964 Wilderness Act. He is promising more of these wilder-less bills in the future, and Babbitt, a lame duck Secretary, won't be around to demand future wilderness designations.

The San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act is designed to deceive. The legislation is a lot like the temporary personas of Johnson and Cannon.

But the Utah Wilderness Coalition, a 181-member group colaition, has spent a great deal of heart and soul trying to protect Utah's spectacular desert landscapes. It knows what's good, bad and ugly even if Babbitt doesn't. This one's bad, and the environmental community has seen too much of the real Johnson and Cannon to be fooled.

As an example, Johnson recently told a Christian Science Monitor reporter that the San Rafael Western Legacy and National Conservation Act was a "way around wilderness, because wilderness is a problem not a solution." So much for the "wilderness neutral" concept he has touted. He claims his words were taken out of context, but Johnson has an anti-wilderness press record as long as a Butch Cassidy rap sheet.

Cannon too, has toned down his typical anti-wilderness rhetoric in hopes of roping an election-year coup. A fat chunk of pork-barrel on a re-election brochure would look good to the folks in Emery County, never opposed to welfare if its going their way. But who can forget Cannon's classic shoot- first-ask-questions-later stunt last spring when, following an anti-wilderness rally, he led a group of hootin' ORV riders into wilderness quality lands off-limits to motorized vehicle use. Documented in Utah newspapers, it was an illegal act, and Cannon knew it. So here's why the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act has conservation community concerned. First, the bill creates a national conservation area (NCA) around one million acres of the San Rafael Swell located within the boundaries of Emery County and forms a "Legacy District" around an even larger area of that county.

The boundaries alone should tip off the suspicious. The true San Rafael Swell, a unique region of slot canyons, painted badlands and sandstone reefs, knows no county lines. The Swell region is one of the most easily definable geologic areas in all of Utah. This NCA, conceived by Johnson and introduced in Congress by Cannon early this year, conveniently lops off the Swell at the Emery County line, leaving out important regions of the San Rafael that need protection.

The reality is the legislation has more to do with a $10 million federal government subsidy, slated for Emery County, than it has to do with conservation. Johnson plans to promote tourism, including motorized recreation, in Emery County and doesn't want to share his slice of the pork pie.

And that is another problem with the bill. Illegal off-road vehicle activity has skyrocketed in the San Rafael Swell. Like an ecological cancer, it spreads with every warm weather weekend. Cannon's bill fails to adequately address damage created by irresponsible off-roadersd. In fact, the bill proposes to study the issue for four years. Meanwhile, Johnson plans to promote his county as an ORV destination, and without immediate and critical protections, pristine wilderness quality lands will suffer.

Finally, Cannon's legislation fails to designate any wilderness in the San Rafael Swell. The Utah Wilderness Coalition has identified 700,000 acres of pristine desert country within the proposed NCA boundary deserving of wilderness designation, a million acres if you include the entire Swell region. Two years ago Cannon offered an anemic 140,000 acres of wilderness when he sponsored similar legislation that was opposed by the Clinton Administration because it failed to adequately protect the area.

But since then, the Clinton Administration has been roped, tied and branded. Ironically, Cannon played a big part in that. And in his mad, late administration dash to secure a conservation legacy, Babbitt has hitched himself to Cannon and the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act wagon. After all, its got a nice, down home ring to it.

And that's the art of deception. You've got to give him credit. Randy Johnson cleans up right nice.