Mike Matz is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is pushing to preserve 9.1 million acres of Utah canyon country as federally protected wilderness.

Monday, 3 May 1999

SALT LAKE CITY

This week should be interesting. Our grassroots activists strut their stuff in support of wilderness at public meetings hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, the opening rounds for eventually establishing more than 2 million acres as additional Wilderness Study Areas. BLM already has just over 3 million acres tucked aside in such a category. Folks gather tonight in Castle Dale, tomorrow in Tooele and Vernal, later in Richfield, Moab, Monticello, and Fillmore. Finally, on Friday, we hope to see quite a few at the Salt Lake hearing, and to help ensure it, we’re hosting a rally at Cottonwood Park.

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Photo: Harvey Halpern.

The people who take time out of their lives to run the phone banks, put packets together, attend the meetings, and write their comments — they are the true champions of the wilderness movement. One woman works a 10-hour day, then brings her two young ones down here to volunteer. Although licking stamps or painting signs isn’t the most glamorous task, sometimes it can get exciting — and unfortunately nasty. Last week at the meeting in Escalante, one of our organizers had a knife pulled on him and later someone said, “We just ought to kill you.” Supporters in the same town had their irrigation system vandalized, tubing cut and put into a newly excavated foundation, and the water turned on. In the morning, they had a swimming hole, and the local water board for good measure slapped a hefty fine on them.

Condoned or not by local authorities, these egregious acts of violence and the threatening atmosphere they engender simply have no place in today’s world. They fly in the face of democracy, and the rights of all people to participate in decisions their government is considering. These are lands everyone has a stake in, and are not the fiefdoms of a few malcontents who somehow have come to believe they can do as they damn well please with them.

We have pressed the BLM to make the conditions safer at meetings. The state director ordered agency personnel to attend in uniform and for there to be at least one law enforcement officer present. We know we’ll see an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in the next couple of days highlighting the events in Escalante. Getting a reporter to make some calls got the local law officials suddenly interested in taking statements and doing a little more investigating. We stepped up our efforts to make sure we had people in sufficient numbers at each of these meetings, not so much with the intent of influencing BLM on its decision, but more to ensure a safe and comfortable atmosphere for anybody in attendance. People are responding.

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The dedication of these folks, the sheer will in the face of sometimes hostile circumstances, the determination in light of the political odds: All this makes me realize the progress to date is no fluke. If people will lead, leaders will follow. The commitment to make their voices heard in this process of determining the future of their public lands is heartening. In this case, people know what’s at stake. Their efforts this time could mean more than 2 million acres being afforded legal protection as Wilderness Study Areas. That’s more land than was included in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Tuesday, 4 May 1999

SALT LAKE CITY

The battle on the ground to defend these places grinds on daily. While volunteers, mostly, spent the last two years identifying every patch of the Bureau of Land Management’s 23 million acres that qualifies for wilderness under the definition of the 1964 Wilderness Act, it now falls upon the shoulders of our field staff to make sure all these places remain viable for eventual inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. At our weekly staff meeting we run through the litany of proposed actions that threaten wilderness we hope to protect in the new and improved citizens’ proposal.

Photo: Ray Wheeler.

Herb McHarg, in our Moab office, and Liz Thomas, in our Cedar City office, lawyers both, spend a good chunk of their time going toe-to-toe with BLM. The agency is a lumbering opponent, but doggedly persistent all the same. It has its fans, like the oil and gas industry, cheering it on.

The Resource Development Group, an oil consortium, wants to drill 969 wells and build 267 miles of new roads in the Book Cliffs, a plan that would ruin the Lower Bitter Creek proposed wilderness. BLM magically found that no significant impact would result if it granted permits to drill, thanks to the agency’s imperial wisdom that four wells per square mile (instead of the usual eight) would mitigate impacts in critical elk and mule deer wintering range adequately enough.

Legacy Oil, a wildcatter out of Colorado, wants to drill for oil in Lockhart Basin, which was originally included inside the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park until political wrangling in the 1970s excised it. But Lockhart Basin is deserving of protected status, and we’re proposing it be designated wilderness, just as others hope to see it added back into the park.

For both of these proposed projects, BLM thought quick and simple environmental assessments would suffice, though to us these projects seem to qualify as major federal actions with serious ramifications. We’re insisting it draw up more thorough environmental impact statements, which at least require the agency to include a “no action” alternative.

Local water boards and state government agencies are also on the sidelines, urging BLM on — more often than not to do the wrong thing. BLM finds it hard to resist.

In Escalante, the water conservancy district wants to build a new reservoir, just up from an existing one in Wide Hollow, that would drain water away from places we think ought to be designated wilderness. In the desert, water is the lifeblood of the ecosystem. We had to go above local heads, but we prevailed upon BLM in Washington, D.C., to yank the project.

Because water is so vital to wildlife, the state Division of Wildlife Resources wants to install a slew of water guzzlers in proposed wilderness to boost numbers of non-endemic game like the chukar (Eurasian birds). Such developments would disqualify places from becoming wilderness, which is part of the aim of the state, and BLM has been more than willing to oblige. We took the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which agreed that guzzlers don’t belong in proposed wilderness.

These myriad skirmishes and tussles don’t grab the spotlight. Occasionally, they make the paper. They’re not particularly exciting or sexy. It’s a lonely task for Herb and Liz, who know more about what’s happening on the ground than do agency personnel, who get paid a lot more. It’s tough to feel like the constant fighting is making any headway.

But it’s so critical. Mixing it up with BLM, swinging a right here and an unseen uppercut there, lets agency staff know we’re there watching them intently. They know they have to do their jobs — they know somebody’s making sure they follow the law and abide by their own regulations. It’s what distinguishes SUWA and other groups like us that have a presence in the field. We do what we do because it’s what’s best for the land. And we celebrate every little decision we win, every minor but deleterious action we block.

Wed
nesday, 5 May 1999

SALT LAKE CITY

Shaking the money tree comes with the turf. We’re a little better off than most groups because 71 percent of our annual budget comes from our 20,000 members‚ dues and donations, so I maybe don’t have to spend as much time as some of my counterparts in any one week hustling foundations and major donors. But the job’s still right up there at the top of my list. Saving wilderness takes money, in addition to legions of volunteers and a watchful staff. This morning I have a conference call with a couple of program officers for a foundation that’s interested in funding a project to help advance the BLM wilderness cause nationally.

Photo: James Kay.

Outside magazine says SUWA “has a reputation as a sort of fighting Johnny Appleseed, coaching other regional groups in the art of grassroots galvanizing.” The inventory and mapping work we coordinated for the new Utah wilderness citizens’ proposal is something a lot of groups are interested in emulating, so we’ve sent our guru, Kevin Walker, around to talk to folks about how to set up similar work and get it done. People are curious about different aspects of our campaign: how we elevated it to the national level and got the Clintonites to establish a new national monument, or how we keep all-terrain vehicles from trashing Wilderness Study Areas (which entails browbeating the agency to set up barriers).

Others of us have gone around to conferences and workshops to show and tell. Heidi McIntosh returned last weekend from a wilderness gathering in Albuquerque. I head out this weekend to another one in Reno. We’re thrilled to help in any way we can — so long as it doesn’t unduly detract us from our focus on Utah wilderness. We need to maintain our steady progress toward inclusion of more spectacular canyons in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Fortunately, there’s a new kid on the block to shoulder some of the galvanizing — the Wilderness Support Project.

In a new and encouraging groundswell, people are jump-starting the wilderness movement again like the conservation community did in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. (Ronald Reagan, of all people, signed bills that added more than 8 million acres into the system). Since 1993 when the California Desert Act passed, tucking another 3.5 million acres away, not much more than a trickle has gone into the system and efforts to change that were languishing. That’s changing. Put your ear to the ground, and you can hear the conservation community rumbling. Folks in the Colorado Wilderness Network have pushed to introduce a bill in this Congress reflecting their citizens’ proposal, which would protect 1.4 million acres of public land. A new group in Nevada, the Nevada Wilderness Alliance, is beginning to look at public lands in the state to determine which could qualify as wilderness; the same is true of the revitalized New Mexico Wilderness Coalition. In Oregon, people have a plan for protecting the eastern sagebrush plains, and Wyoming also has a citizens’ proposal on the table.

Across the West, we’re seeing a resurgence in protecting wilderness, and in the middle of the maelstrom, at the center of the vortex, is a the newly established Wilderness Support Project. Headed by Brian O’Donnell and Melyssa Watson, this project aims to find resources for the incipient activities of groups mentioned above and others. Giving them guidance, it’s helping move activities down the same path SUWA has moved its campaign — getting bills introduced and supported in Congress.

The trick is to prompt decisionmakers in Congress and the administration to sit up and take notice — to goad them into action. The concept behind the Wilderness Support Project is a solid one, and that is to set up various states’ wilderness bills in Congress like a line of dominoes, so that when one succeeds, say, Colorado or Utah, the rest are right behind ready to be enacted.

The National Wilderness Preservation System now holds 104 million acres of public land — yours and mine — in a pristine trust for future generations. So far, BLM lands have received scant attention, but nowhere else does such significant potential exist to add acreage to the system. BLM manages 264 million acres on our behalf. After being required by law in 1976 to look at its holdings for wilderness, BLM found less than 10 percent suitable, a shoddy stab at the matter to be sure. The White House Council of Environmental Quality at that time estimated roughly 90 to 120 million acres could be suitable for wilderness protection, though a fraction has undoubtedly lost its wilderness character in the intervening years.

To give these numbers perspective, the Alaska Lands Act added 57 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The potential for BLM wilderness in the West rivals this figure. The domino game is on. It’ll be fun to see the pieces line up.

To contact the Wilderness Support Project for more information, call 801.420.4109 or send an email.

Thursday, 6 May 1999

SALT LAKE CITY

Today is one of the most gratifying days we’ll ever experience on this nettlesome matter of how much wilderness in Utah should be set aside for future generations to enjoy. Today is the day America’s Redrock Wilderness Act is introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Photo: John George.

The legislation embodies the new and improved citizens’ inventory of public lands that remain wild in Utah, held in trust for all of us by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM administers 23 million acres in Utah, and after two years of fieldwork, our intrepid volunteers documented 9.1 million acres that qualify for wilderness designation. We’ve got dozens of boxes of maps, now all stored on a Geographic Informational System, and thousands of photos — aerial and on-the-ground shots — to prove it. The mapping is without a doubt the most comprehensive inventory of its kind ever conducted.

Our inventory is backed in the main by a complementary inventory undertaken by the BLM itself, although the agency didn’t look at all lands under its care, only the 6 million acres of wilderness contained in an earlier citizens’ proposal. Still, the agency now acknowledges that 5.8 million acres hold the requisite characteristics for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. If it had finished the job, it would probably have affirmed the rest of our 9 million acres.

Today’s milestone is all the more meaningful because of this astonishing fact: America’s Redrock Wilderness Act has 133 original cosponsors. That’s 30 more than signed on at the onset of last Congress when the bill we were backing had 3 million fewer acres. I’ll be candid. We fully anticipated that members of Congress would feel more trepidation sponsoring a bill that called for additional acreage, but with great glee we will note that a bigger bill actually garnered more support. In the Senate, where the bill was introduced two week ago, 12 senators were cosponsors from the start — as many senators as became cosponsors in all of the last Congress. The leap in support is attributable to our concerted efforts at public outreach.

For the past several weeks, poor Dave Pacheco has been living out of his truck on the road in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and now Indiana and Wisconsin. He’s been showing a slick slide presentation to a plethora of
local Sierra Club groups and chapters, college environmental classes, and small gatherings at some of our members’ homes. At each showing, he’s entreated people to write their members of Congress asking them to support America’s Redrock Wilderness Act. Keith Hammond, another of our outreach mavens, has supplicated activists in California, Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere in the West to pen their letters as well. Meanwhile, in the nation’s capitol, Larry Young plays the inside-the-Beltway game by trundling around to office after office as the consummate lobbyist. Earlier this year, he hosted a lobby week for around 150 activists, helped them with their message, and pushed them out the door to go meet with their members of Congress.

While our opponents in the oil and gas industry, coal companies, and corporate cattle concerns no doubt have more money to throw around, where they can never match us is in the breadth and depth of feeling among our activists that these places are unique and need to be protected. Arm our folks with the information they need — through action alerts, list serves, and direct appeals — and there ain’t nothing we can’t do. On the cosponsor list in the House are enough Republicans that with such a slim majority these days in the House, we could win a vote on the floor if given the chance. Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah, chair of the House Resources public lands panel — please give us a vote on the floor.

Then we’ll really have something to celebrate. But in the meantime, we’ll probably take time out tonight to lift a few brews. Here’s to you, Dave and Keith and Larry, and to all the rest of you who helped us reach 133.

Simply unbelievable.

Friday, 7 May 1999

SALT LAKE CITY

Outside my office on the hallway wall is a large framed photograph at which I look at probably 50 times a day and never tire of the scene. It shows a twisting 40-mile edge in the Earth’s crust that was turned up forcibly so its serrated line reaches at an angle toward the sky — an anticline, in geologist’s vernacular, I guess. Solid yellow sandstone, sculpted by eons of wind and water, gleams brightly compared to the brownish, sandy top cover on either side. On the east side of the anticline is this low austere desert and to the west the whole surface of land bulges up about 1500 feet higher, covered by juniper and pinyon trees The uplifted edge looks like the spines running along the back of a stegosaurus, and maybe was formed about the same time those creatures roamed this place. This geological wonder is called the San Rafael Reef.

Photo: Tom Till.

Three weekends ago, I took some folks from California, Colorado, Montana, and Washington on a trip there. We slipped into the cool morning air of Old Woman Canyon, climbed a steady incline to the top of the Reef, less on edge and more level here than further north. On top we kept going to the next slickrock knob and then the next, and soon hit the cliff edge where we could go no further except 800 feet straight down. Just to the south lay Temple Mountain, but the views all around astounded us. Way off you could even see the Abajo Mountains. After lunch we descended Farnsworth Canyon, which spit us out onto the low sagebrush desert, where we hoofed it back to the camp for the night. A three-quarter moon lit up the night sky after dinner of lasagna cooked in a dutch oven.

I don’t know why I’m sharing the vision of the photograph and my actual visit to the San Rafael Reef in my last installment of the week’s diary entries. I guess it’s to point out the spectacular wonders we have in Utah — you know what I mean if you’ve ever visited the Escalante or Zion, or run Desolation or Cataract — and which we sometimes take for granted or fail to appreciate fully. Not all, I’m sure, but many of us find solace in the natural world. Last weekend, I took a friend from California out on a trip and he saw a pronghorn for the first time, a nice healthy buck. I’m rewarded by the excitement in folks’ eyes when they see something new like that. Escaping into what remains of our natural heritage has a way of refreshing the soul, of reminding us what’s really important, of letting us know that simple things are often the best. I suppose bringing up the photo and visit could be a way of saying, “Take care of the places that mean something special to you.”

Our office is going to be hectic today. There is a pack of dogs underfoot and a camaraderie borne of shared passion by canine and primate alike. We work pretty hard, though the hounds can be sometimes found lounging about. Today, we’ve got a couple of stories in the morning’s paper. The open house hosted by BLM is this evening, with our rally beforehand, so people are scurrying to prepare.

But we make sure we take time to play as well. Getting out in the wilds helps us keep our work in perspective. We enjoy sharing the desert in each other’s company because of our collective commitment. For me this week it’s been a real pleasure sharing with you what we do. Thanks from letting me clutter your e-mail and web browser. Take care of yourselves — and the places that mean something special.