Why We Signed the Greater Canyonlands Letter
Greater Canyonlands National Monument
Letter to the President from Outdoor Companies:
FAQ answered by Ashley Korenblat
Ashley owns Western Spirit Cycling a national bicycle touring company headquartered in Moab, Utah. She has been an outfitter on the public lands in 18 states since 1996. She served for 8 years on the Utah BLM Resource Advisory Council. She worked with Governor Herbert on the Outdoor Recreation Economic Ecosystem Task Force. She served as President of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and recently created the Public Lands Initiative at IMBA, representing the bicycle industry on 30 Wilderness and land protection bills around the country. She was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of fame in 2003.
Why does Greater Canyonlands need to be protected?
In southeastern Utah, the recreation areas where people go biking, hiking, climbing, jeeping, sight-seeing etc., are surrounded by several million acres that have been identified for future and continued development of oil and gas, tar sands, potash, oil shale, uranium, and other extractive industries.
All outdoor activities depend on access to the great outdoors. If southeastern Utah is carved up by industrial development, the recreational experience will be severely compromised and outdoor enthusiasts will take their tourism dollars elsewhere. It is important to note that the West’s protected public lands are a major reason why the western economy has outperformed the rest of the U.S. economy in key measures of growth–employment, population, and personal income–during the last four decades. And even through the worst recession since the Great Depression, Utah has been a national leader in economic growth despite resource extraction providing its lowest economic contribution to the Greater Canyonlands region in decades. See the November 2012 report, West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Utah Jobs and Higher Incomes, which details Utah’s recent economic growth and the role of protected public lands in supporting faster job creation and higher per-capita income.
While the BLM staff in the area work hard to plan for all uses of the land, they have very few means of fully protecting the region’s critical recreation assets. The land use laws and regulations that the BLM must follow generally favor either total conservation or resource extraction. There are very few tools available that are specifically designed to protect the recreation assets that drive the area’s economy.
As an outfitter and a cyclist, I have worked through IMBA to promote cycling, open trails, and create purpose built trails. While it is always extremely disappointing to find a trail that is closed to cycling, what is worse is to return to a trail you rode the year before and find it gone. Where the trail used to be, there is a 40-foot wide gravel road to a new drill pad. And in some cases, even though I am a permitted outfitter in the area, the land manager had no official obligation to notify me about this new development.
And just a quick word about camping anywhere near a drill pad, even if there are no lights, there is the sound of the pump and the smell of the industrial operation. Camping is meant to be a peaceful experience where the air is fresh and the night is quiet.
And if you are under the impression that the presence of a campground or a famous jeep trail means that the area is protected for recreation, this simply is not true. And many of us in southern Utah have invested in businesses whose purpose is to share the incredible public lands with visitors from around the world. And those businesses in turn have created the need for supporting businesses in the form of healthcare, real estate and insurance professionals, who then reach a critical mass. Which in turn lead to quality-of-life recruits who have moved their families and businesses to the region, contributing to the local tax base (as opposed to non-resident or transient resource extraction professionals) and growing average incomes faster than those in places where there is no protected public land. Today, tourism and recreation on public lands are the largest economic sector in Grand County. Detailed economic data regarding the benefits of recreation tourism in Grand County can be found in the October 2011 study: The Economic Value of Public Lands Around Grand County, Utah.
Sure we need oil and gas and potash and maybe even uranium to maintain our 21st century lifestyles, but is it necessary to get every last drop from every last acre?
If you think it is, then we disagree. If you believe that there should be some spots set aside specifically for recreation, both motorized and non-motorized, then the question becomes how should we do this.
I have heard from many of you who really truly hate the federal government and simply do not want to be told what you can do or where you can do it. I myself believe in democracy, and democracy is about communication and sharing. It is about coming up with ways to live together in a community. So I am willing to work with the federal government to find a way to set aside some special places for recreation.
And I want to use whatever tools might work. I would actually prefer to create a National Recreation Area, which requires an act of Congress, around Greater Canyonlands. This would mean that all stakeholders could sit down with the maps and decide what should happen where. And I do mean all of us: the residents and visitors to southern Utah, could craft a proposal and present it to congress. I have been involved in just such a process in over 30 places around the country, and here is my score card: 2 would close bike trails, 25 would open more bike trails, and 3 are still in play.
If we began the process to create legislation here in southern Utah, there is no guarantee that I am going to get every bike trail I want or every campsite where I would like to camp. But I am willing to compromise and share the land with other recreation groups and even work with them to make sure they will get to have the kinds of experiences they want out there, whether it is dirt biking or base jumping. Because if we don’t sort this out and come up with a plan, little by little the area right up to the Park boundary will be sliced and diced with roads and trucks and air we really shouldn’t be breathing.
So why did the outdoor companies choose to endorse the idea of a National Monument if a National Recreation Area would better meet our purposes? Especially since a monument in Utah has so much baggage? First of all, a few misperceptions: perhaps most significantly, the letter we wrote was misconstrued as an endorsement of a 200 page petition filed by SUWA last year that seeks to close all kinds of roads. Next people started pulling out management plans from other monuments, which would have little to do with the plan written for this proposed monument, as proof that trails and roads would be closed. Some also become convinced that the National Park Service would take over management of this new monument. And then there is the general anger about a process where the president signs a document and works out the details later.
To be clear: this proposal has nothing to do with the SUWA petition, all of us would have the opportunity to develop management policies for recreation including the protection of motorized routes, and the BLM—not the NPS—would like assume management of this monument in the event it was ever established.
So, why a monument? The problem is that a National Recreation Area takes an act of congress and congress doesn’t seem to be able to pass anything these days, especially land use laws. So the outdoor companies didn’t think legislation was an option. And they thought that if a monument proclamation could be written with recreation as a key reason for the designation this would result in the creation of a management plan whose purpose would be to optimize all outdoor recreation.
Now “optimize” is a tricky word. Once again, I may not get all the bike trails or campsites I personally want during the management planning process, but I have chosen to take that risk in order to protect the larger recreation resource. First, I like and trust the BLM land managers in the area and they would be in charge of setting up the public process that would create the management plan with optimized recreation as a goal. And second, the growing number of drill pads, for example, on the road to Canyonlands is making me nervous. While currently the tar sands and oil shale areas are some distance from the park, there is technically no law in place that would keep those industries from working the land right up to the park boundary.
I have already tried camping and biking in oil fields and clear-cuts. On one of our bike trips in the grasslands of North Dakota the trail goes right around lots of fenced in drill pads with big signs warning of poisonous gasses. We tell the riders that if they get a flat tire just keep pedaling until the smell goes away. On another trip the logging trucks go by so fast and so often, we had to give up visiting the area all together.
You may say, too bad honey, we need the timber. Ok I understand, but do we need it from every last acre? The outdoor industry makes money and creates jobs. And they are sustainable. Remember the infinite sign from high school math? Well when you compare the recreation economy to non-renewable resource extraction, you get to use the infinite sign on the recreation side of the cost benefit calculation, but you always have to come up with a lifespan of a mine or a well.
I have also heard from some people who would only want to limit resource extraction if it significantly detracted from recreation. Of course a drill pad here and a potash plant there may not be a significant detraction, but there are widespread proposals in our region for both oil and gas and potash, and tar sands and oil shale operations will result in huge sections of the land that would be off limits to all of us. And it is not just the foot print of the operation that is the problem, it is all the infra-structure that is required in the form of big wide boring gravel roads with trucks roaring by and power lines and pipe lines expanding in all directions.
Bottom line: Doing nothing is not an option for anyone who either likes to go outside in the Greater Canyonlands region—by whatever means—or who depends in any way on the health of the recreation economy in Southern Utah. If you think a monument is too restrictive, that’s fine, but we need to come up with something. We can have resource extraction and a healthy recreation economy, but not in the same place. We have to find a mechanism for effective zoning in the region, or the ultimate winners will be the shareholders of the various Canadian companies who are currently seeking permits for potash and oil shale all around us.
This is the current footprint of the various resource extraction proposals in our region:
Tar sands, oil shale, uranium, oil & gas, potash, and even hydro-power proposals all threaten to displace the world-class recreation assets in the Greater Canyonlands area.
So here are the frequently asked questions I have been getting:
What is a national monument?
Only lands already owned by the federal government can be declared national monuments. National monument designation protects and reserves landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest as authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906.
The idea from these outdoor companies is to designate a monument for the purpose of recreation. Recreation would be a stated value in the monument proclamation, which is normally only a few pages.
After the proclamation is made a management plan would be developed through a full public process pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. All management plans are developed on a case-by-case basis. So not all current rules and policies in existing monuments are relevant.
Is motorized access allowed in national monuments?
Is the letter from the outdoor companies the same thing as the 2011 SUWA Petition to the Department of Interior that calls for the closure of over 1000 miles of roads?
No. The letter from the outdoor companies is a general request for a monument designation. The SUWA petition is an entirely different proposal.
Do the outdoor companies want the area to become a National Park?
No. The letter asks for a national monument that would continue to be managed by the BLM.
What are the benefits of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument?
A national monument will attract visitors to the region and protect the recreation assets that drive the local economy.
Why do these companies want it to be protected?
To promote and protect all aspects of the recreation economy in the area which are threatened by widespread resource extraction and industrial development.
What activities would be allowed in the national monument?
A management planning process, that includes public input, would follow the proclamation of the monument and outline specifics for recreation management including activities such as hiking, rafting, climbing, hunting, off-road vehicle use, mountain biking, base jumping, etc.
What happens to private or state lands in a national monument?
Designation does not affect private or state land within a national monument.
How might national monument status affect grazing?
Existing authorized permits or leases would continue with terms and conditions under existing laws and regulations. National monument status allows for voluntary retirement of grazing permits.
What are the alternatives to a monument?
There are many alternative tools that outdoor companies could support that might also p[protect the local recreation economy and preserve all forms of recreation access. These include special management designations that would require an amendment to the BLM Resource Management Plans. Alternatively, a better approach which would involve the interests of all stakeholders is legislation that designates the region a National Recreation Area or National Conservation Area. However, Utah’s congressional delegation must step up and lead for any legislative option to stand a chance.