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Using Utah canyon country as a backdrop, senior Sierra Club executives on Tuesday unveiled a renewed effort to protect the nation's scenic treasures, highlighting environmentalists' hopes to establish a Greater Canyonlands National Monument and shut the door on tar-sands development.
The "Our Wild America" campaign also steps up the environmental group's commitment to connect kids with nature, restore forest health and reduce the nation's reliance on the fossil fuels behind climate change.
"Pollution, mining, drilling and fracking are encroaching on some of our last remaining wild wonders, and our society is becoming increasingly disconnected from nature at a time when climate disruption is making it more important than ever to be expanding our conservation legacy," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, author of the book Coming Clean Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal.
Brune is on a two-week road trip around the Southwest with his wife and three young children, visiting key spots like the newly designated Rio Grande del Norte and Chimney Rock national monuments and areas around Grand Canyon National Park that conservationists hope to see protected.
Besides urging federal authorities to flex the muscle of the Antiquities Act and establish more protected national monuments, Sierra Club leaders say they will work harder to "keep dirty fuels in the ground."
"Our federal agencies have a dual responsibly to protect habitat and not add to the climate crisis," campaign director Dan Chu said. "We are connecting dots between impacts of energy development in special places and climate activism."
This aspect of the campaign is a direct challenge to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's energy plan, which seeks to develop all the state's resources from solar and wind to tar sands and coal. The governor and his advisers have long argued the state can strike a balance that allows drilling and mining without impairing the natural treasures that support Utah's robust tourism and outdoor recreation industries a $12 billion enterprise that employs 122,000.
Utah activists aren't buying the governor's line, arguing protected landscapes are a potent economic driver.
"It brings a lot of wealth to these small towns that would be boom-bust economies," said Sierra Club's Marion Klaus, a Park City biologist. "People want access to the public lands. If it's developed just for oil and tar sands, what you are seeing is fences that say 'no trespassing.' "
Club leadership affirmed its commitment to local campaigns against expansion of the Alton coal mine near Bryce Canyon National Park and a tar sands proposal on state land at PR Springs. These projects illustrate "the dark side of an all-of-the-above energy policy," according to Brune.
"It's a clash of visions for the land. Should we be protecting some of the most inspiring landscapes in the world or should we sacrifice them to extract a small amount of carbon-intensive fuels?" Brune said Monday in a phone interview from Dead Horse Point State Park. "Digging coal out of the ground was an innovative idea 100 years ago, but in the 21st century we should be able to evolve economically without lowering our quality of life."