This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
When it comes to the Interior Department's decision to reinstate the Bureau of Land Management's authority to protect wilderness quality lands in Utah, some members of our congressional delegation aren't letting facts get in the way of a good rant.
Sen. Mike Lee proclaimed, "I will not sit idly by while the federal government puts a choke hold on our most valuable resources." Rep. Rob Bishop has attacked the policy and Sen. Orrin Hatch attributed the policy to "radical environmental elitists."
But the Federal Land Policy and Management Act is clear: The BLM has the authority to "preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition." Interior's policy simply reinstates the BLM's authority to protect lands in their natural state, authority wrongfully stripped by a surprise State of Utah/Interior Department pact in 2003. Until then, BLM had used this authority from 1976 to 2003, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, to protect places where you can hunt, fish, or wander around with your family in blissful peace and quiet.
Wild places like these are part of Utah's heritage, and we should – and do – cherish them every time we sit around the campfire with our kids or head off into the wild with a fishing pole.
Yet so much of Utah's natural heritage remains vulnerable to development: Desolation Canyon, the Dirty Devil Country where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid from the law; Labyrinth Canyon, where the Green River first awed John Wesley Powell nearly 150 years ago; and the magnificent red rock maze that surrounds Canyonlands National Park in a seamless expanse of breathtaking beauty.
Clearly, calls to protect these remarkable places and others are not unreasonable. And if the BLM doesn't use its authority to protect them, there will ultimately be little left for Congress to protect.
Now it is up to the BLM to carry this policy forward and restore balance to its historically lopsided preference for development and off-road-vehicle playgrounds over the conservation of special places. We should all be watching to ensure that the BLM lives up to the promise of its now-restored authority and the "high priority" that Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar placed on wilderness protection.
Lastly, while talk of a "choke hold" on resources is bound to get your political base in a lather, it's a far cry from reality. Currently, about 80 percent of BLM lands in Utah are open for drilling. Yet industry isn't biting. Through FY 2009, nearly 5 million ares of BLM lands in Utah were under lease, yet only 1,092,640 acres were actually in production, a disparity that exists West-wide. In fact, oil and gas companies now hold leases on over 32.5 million acres of public lands throughout the West that they are not developing. Similarly, in 2009, the BLM issued 4,487 post-leasing permits to drill for oil and gas, and industry did not use 1,220 of those permits.
"Choke-hold" sound bites are more about scoring political points than ensuring balance and fairness for all. Here's to a little less drama and a little more thoughtful debate.
Heidi McIntosh is associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.