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Off-highway vehicle use. Photo Credit: BLM

Emery County Public Land Management Act – Privatization of public lands

Emery County Public Land Management Act

Compromise? More like a devil’s bargain. The Emery County [Utah] Public Land Management Act’s original sponsors, then-Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative John Curtis (both R-UT), touted it as a compromise between conservationists and extractive industries. In reality, the bill would sacrifice the incredible natural features of Emery County—including the famous San Rafael Swell and the Book Cliffs, renowned for backcountry hunting—for off-highway vehicle trails, coal mining, and oil and gas development.

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Emery County Public Land Management Act Location

Emery County Public Land Management Act

This bill would bring coal mining, oil and gas development, and expanded motorized use to land renowned for its incredible features and backcountry hunting.

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Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service


Emery County Public Land Management Act – The Details

Conservationists have long sought to protect the incredible natural features of Emery County, Utah, including the Green River’s Labyrinth and Desolation Canyons and the San Rafael Swell, an enormous fold of sedimentary rock measuring 75 miles by 40 miles that rises 1,500 feet above the surrounding landscape. Local and state officials, as well as opponents of federal management of public lands, have opposed protections at every step.

So when the Emery County [Utah] Public Land Management Act was introduced in May 2018, its sponsors, then-Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative John Curtis (both R-UT), pronounced it “a model for how Utahns can work together to solve public land management questions in some of the most unique/controversial areas of the country.” Public lands advocates can only hope it is no such thing, for the Act is a boon to the fossil fuels and motorized recreation industries—it gives public lands to the state for expanding Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) trails, shrinks a wilderness study area (WSA) to facilitate coal mining, and sets up a land exchange program that will lead to even more coal mining and oil and gas development on what are now federal public lands.

The Act languished on its own in 2018, but Hatch and Curtis convinced Congressional leaders to include it as part of an omnibus public lands bill that nearly passed at the end of the year. The omnibus bill was reintroduced at the start of 2019, which Congress quickly passed as the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. President Trump signed the Act into law on March 12, 2019.

The Dingell Act will give away about 10,000 acres of public land in the San Rafael Reef on the eastern edge of the Swell to Utah. The state intends to monetize the Reef’s popularity with motorized recreationists by expanding a state park, developing off-road vehicle trails and other amenities, and charging an entrance fee to what is now public land. The Act gives an additional 2,700 acres of public lands to Emery County’s local governments, a considerable amount of land given the county’s 10,000 residents.

The Act also fulfills a longstanding goal of Utah’s State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). The agency, legally obligated to wring maximum revenue from the state’s trust lands, has long wanted to trade the remote, expensive-to-develop parcels it manages in the San Rafael Swell for accessible federal lands with fossil fuels potential elsewhere in the state. The Emery County Act offers up a land exchange program that greases the skids for SITLA by setting tight deadlines for review, prohibiting consideration of alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), granting exceptions to standard federal appraisal practices for federal lands, and allowing SITLA to select public lands that the Bureau of Land Management hasn’t marked for disposal.

The bill offers one other gift to the fossil fuels industry: it eliminates longstanding protections on nearly 15,000 acres of the Turtle Canyon Wilderness Study Area. This is expected to facilitate coal mining in the Book Cliffs, a premier destination for Utah’s backcountry elk and mule deer hunters.

Hatch and Curtis cloaked their bill as an authentic compromise to resolve longstanding disagreements between conservationists on one side and the resource extraction industries and Emery County commissioners who do their bidding on the other. It is nothing of the sort, but this is no surprise, coming from two politicians who appeared onstage with President Trump when he signed illegal orders shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in December 2017.

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