Commission considers support for wilderness bill

By David Boyle

News Director

A proposal to create additional wilderness in the county was the subject of disagreement at a recent meeting of the San Juan County Commission.

America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, a bill proposed before Congress and supported by environmental advocacy groups, would re-designate 8.4 million acres of public lands in Utah into the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The proposal includes hundreds of thousands of acres in San Juan County, including Dark Canyon, Nokai Dome, White Canyon, Valley of the Gods, Butler Wash, Indian Creek, and Shay Mountain, to name a few areas.

The protective designation would further restrict uses on the public land, including future commercial enterprises such as oil and gas drilling, as well as logging.

Wilderness designations also restrict use of motorized or mechanical vehicles, including cars, Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs), and mountain bikes.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has advocated for wilderness designations since the 1980s. 

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California’s 47th district (D), and Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois (D).

The legislation has no support from federal representatives in Utah, but of the 25 federal representatives in neighboring Four Corners states, five have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

Advocates for the act say the wilderness designation would help combat climate change, and preserve cultural and natural resources. Opponents say the designation harms local economies and is not needed by the land.

At the October 19 meeting of the San Juan County Commission, Commissioners considered a resolution of support for the Red Rock Wilderness Act. The item was put on the agenda by Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy.

Commissioner Maryboy pointed to the support of the act from elected officials on the Navajo Nation.

“This is in support of what the chapters and also the Navajo Nation has passed, have resolutions there and I do believe the Navajo Utah Commission as well,” said Maryboy. 

“Our constituents feel that they need to voice their concerns at this point in time. So this is how the resolution has come from all seven chapters to the Navajo Nation Council. The Navajo Nation Council passed this resolution so I stand my ground... to support this particular resolution.”

Seven Navajo Chapters that have portions of Utah in their boundaries passed resolutions in support of the act, as did the Navajo Utah Commission and the Navajo Nation Council.

The Navajo Utah Commission includes Utah Chapter officials and members of the Navajo Nation legislative branch – Navajo Nation Council – who represent Utah Navajos.

Maryboy pointed to support from Navajo officials, and Commissioner Bruce Adams pointed to opposition from Utah officials. 

“The entire delegation from the state of Utah has always been opposed to this,” said Adams. “Our Governor, the Lt. Governor, the leadership of the legislature has been opposed and remains opposed. 

“Senator Romney introduced a bill earlier this year opposed to the Red Rock Wilderness Bill. If San Juan County wants to support this and approve this, they may jeopardize their ability to get help from the legislature, the Governor or the Senator on future issues which absolutely are so much more important than the Red Rock Wilderness Bill.”

In addition to the noted lack of support from local state and federal representatives, there were several public comments against the resolution from residents of La Sal, Monticello, and Blanding, including members of the Monticello City Council and the chair of the county economic development board.

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes noted the comments opposed to the Red Rock Wilderness Act, asking for a broader comment period. Commissioner Maryboy was unwilling to table the item, so Grayeyes removed his second on the item and the resolution did not pass.

“I’d like to provide for more supportive matters...between off-reservation and on-reservation rather than create a friction,” said Grayeyes. “I would like to see situations where everybody across the board will be benefited, particularly in our jurisdiction where we have a lack of resources and a lack of economic development.”

The chairman of the County Economic Development Board, Britt Barton, spoke against the resolution.

Barton had hostile words for the commission, stating, “I’m tired of donating a portion of my valuable time as chairman of the San Juan County Economic Development Board trying to promote the economy of this great county, while you who have ultimate responsibility for the financial well-being of this county, continue to promote ridiculous ideas like America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, which will destroy even more of our tax base.”

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