Our country needs more wilderness. This is more than an opinion: A growing body of research shows that open space and places for quiet solitude, both increasingly scarce, have a positive effect on people’s wellbeing and on the economies of communities surrounding these places.
That’s why lawmakers should seize the opportunity to expand our nation’s wealth of protected public lands in a variety of states, including one that has seen decades of stalemate over land use—Utah. A bill pending in Congress, the Emery County Public Land Management Act, would create more than half a million acres of wilderness in the southern part of the state, including Desolation Canyon, Sid’s Mountain, and an area of the San Rafael Swell known as the San Rafael Reef.
These are some of Utah’s most spectacular lands, with colorful slot canyons, towering hoodoos, winding sandstone canyons, and myriad places to explore and enjoy. The remote Desolation Canyon, part of the longest continuous escarpment in the world, is one of the West’s premier hunting destinations. Sid’s Mountain sits at the southern edge of Utah’s Little Grand Canyon, a rough gorge cut by the San Rafael River that is habitat for mule deer, elk, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The San Rafael Reef is a unique geographic formation: a long sandstone ridge rising abruptly from the desert floor.
The Emery County bill introduced by Representative John Curtis (R-UT) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), would permanently safeguard much of these desert landscapes’ most rugged areas without weakening protections for other adjacent lands. In an era when a solid majority of Americans support conservation of special places, passing the legislation should be an easy decision for this Congress.
But the fact that nearly 65 percent of Utah’s land is publicly owned has spurred years of debate about how the state’s landscapes should be managed. In the spirit of finding common ground on how to conserve the best of these areas for future generations while allowing development and other uses elsewhere, The Pew Charitable Trusts has engaged in collaborative efforts for the past five years with a diverse group of stakeholders.
That work contributed to the introduction of this bill, which would increase the amount of congressionally designated wilderness in Utah by 50 percent. Today, less than 2.2 percent of land in the state is wilderness, the highest-level protection that the federal government can assign. The act would also designate 63 miles of Utah’s Green River as wild and scenic—the strongest possible conservation designation for our nation’s waterways—and establish the Jurassic National Monument to preserve one of the greatest concentrations of Jurassic-era dinosaur bones in the world. Further, the measure would create a recreation area to safeguard an additional 330,000-plus acres of the San Rafael Swell, including recreational, cultural, and historical sites, wildlife habitat, and natural and scenic areas.
If the act were to become law, all these lands would be off-limits to new mining and to motorized vehicle use off designated routes. It also would protect a recent settlement reached by conservationists, the Trump administration, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts that allows the federal government to ensure that existing roads in the areas covered by the legislation don’t negatively affect cultural resources, such as Native American sites. All told, the bill—which resulted in part from two decades of work by a committed group of local land users—would permanently protect 1,359 square miles of Utah’s red rock country while opening up less than 20 square miles for other purposes.
By offering these protections for some of Utah’s world-class lands and rivers, the bill represents an important step forward for public lands conservation and can serve as a model for future legislation across the country.
The bill is just one of many measures that Congress has the opportunity to pass before the end of this year to safeguard our public lands and restore our national parks, including legislation that would conserve key watersheds in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, archaeological treasures in New Mexico, ancient trees in Nevada’s fragile Great Basin desert, and some of the best spawning areas for wild steelhead trout in the Pacific Northwest. These proposals reflect hard-won, locally driven compromises on complicated land management issues that, if enacted, would help sustain resources and recreation opportunities that drive local economies.
The bills that have cleared committees and await action from the full Congress cover 2 million acres of public land and 395 miles of rivers. The chance to safeguard so much in one session of Congress may not come around again soon—especially because one of the Utah bill’s sponsors, Sen. Hatch, is retiring at the end of this session. Congress should act now to give Americans the protected open spaces they deserve, today and far into the future.
Tom Wathen leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and lands conservation projects in the United States.
This op-ed was originally published by The Hill.