Op-ed: Utah’s public lands are more complicated than we think

December 30th, 2017

Originally published in the Deseret News, December 22, 2017

Recognizing the unsurpassable beauty of Zion Canyon, civil engineer Leo Snow surveyed the canyon and then recommended it to the federal government to become a national monument in 1909. President William Howard Taft designated about 16,000 acres, and later that was expanded to 146,597 acres. Snow, my great-grandfather, designed and built roads, bridges and even the Mount Carmel tunnel, creating access to the scenic wonders of southwestern Utah. What he started has influenced the ecology and economics of the region for the last century, and it hasn’t come without costs.

Today the seeming “un-designation” of the Bears Ears National Monument is not as simple as the celebrity social media posts make it appear. Though the Bears Ears National Monument, previously 1.3 million acres, was the same size as Utah County, we have seen the controversy flare over nuanced data points taken from a complicated story that includes interdependent environmental, cultural, economic and political systems.

The importance of public lands for rural Utahns ties back to the value of family. Like Leo Snow in the early 1900s, Utahns still sustain their families with jobs that involve natural resources. Alternative jobs for rural Utahns demand the trade-offs of retraining, relocation and decrease in wages. It also requires people to forsake part of their culture and identity. While the Wasatch Front sees surging economic growth, 28 percent of San Juan County falls below the poverty line. Not only are San Juan residents some of the poorest in the state, the county is relying on a general fund budget roughly equivalent to the revenue that Patagonia makes on a single day in November. Counties aren’t the only government entities that struggle with funding.

Paving a mile-long trail in Bryce Canyon National Park costs $300,000 or more. Sewage from 1.5 million hikers is transported out of Arches National Park and trucked 60 miles to a treatment facility in Green River because the Moab treatment facility is outdated. The town of Springdale, in Zion Canyon, has a parking problem only a $4 million parking structure can remedy. Operating costs are increasing with growing visitorship, and visitorship is growing with attention. With a $12 billion maintenance backlog in the National Park System (which manages most national monuments), skyrocketing visitorship and a land mass nearly 10 times greater than Zion National Park, the promised protection of the colossal Bears Ears National Monument was never believable.

The lands in question were under federal management before designation and continue under federal management today; they aren’t being stolen or sold. For decades, policies and relative obscurity, not designation, have protected these lands. Native American cultural artifacts are still protected by strict federal law, but with this increased national attention, they are more at risk of being trampled by happy tourists than greedy oil barons. These cultural resources won’t be plowed under for oil rigs because large-scale resource protection doesn’t come from a label. Designation is not synonymous with protection — funding is.

Resource protection comes from federal management policies and the money allocated to implement those policies. The BLM can increase conservation regulations at any time to improve the management of a resource, but funding appropriation will have to come from Congress. Congress distributes mineral lease revenues to pay for infrastructure that tourists, Native Americans and Wasatch Front residents all use. This money also supports Utah’s schools, rural hospitals and natural disaster mitigation.

Public lands will continue to be one of the children being manipulated and fought over in the vindictive divorce of the two-party political system; however, these issues aren’t liberal or conservative. Instead of focusing on emotional Instagram captions, we must consider solutions in relation to complex systems. Leo Snow thought Zion Canyon was a one-of-a-kind landscape worth preserving, as do you and I. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that conservation and tourism don’t have costs and that designation solves those funding problems.

Shannon Ellsworth is an environmental planner who wrote federal public land policy for 10 counties in Utah before earning an MBA at BYU. She is on the Governor’s Rural Partnership Board and is the president of Utah Valley Young Republicans.