OPINION – Recently, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a field hearing in St. George, Utah, to discuss Bureau of Land Management (BLM) planning efforts in southwestern Utah. I had the opportunity to testify before the subcommittee and would like to underline and expand upon some of the points made during those proceedings, including how the BLM is taking every step to ensure full public participation in developing these plans and some of the limitations provided to us by law.
In 2009, the U.S. Congress designated the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs National Conservation Areas (NCAs) on some spectacular public lands in Washington County. Championed by then-Senator Bob Bennett, the designation sets specific requirements for how the BLM is to manage these areas, making conservation a top priority. According to the law, only uses that further the conservation purposes of the areas can be permitted. If a proposed activity is detrimental to the conservation purposes, the BLM is prohibited by law from approving that action. This is the law Congress passed in 2009; the BLM is bound by it and must work within its well defined parameters.
There has been some confusion regarding the establishment of a “northern transportation route” through the Red Cliffs NCA. While some have suggested that the law requires us to designate this route, a careful reading of the law reveals that is simply not the case. Instead, the Act prohibits such a route through the Red Cliffs NCA unless it furthers the conservation purposes of the area.
What the Act does require of us is to develop a comprehensive travel management plan for BLM-administered lands in Washington County, and we are at work with our many partners to do just that. Once the current round of high-level planning is complete, the BLM will prepare this more specific travel plan in close cooperation with the state, county and city of St. George. The travel plan will consider a northern transportation route within Washington County and the BLM will consider whether the route will further the conservation purposes Congress established for the Red Cliffs NCA.
Another important point is that the BLM is required by law to maintain an inventory “of all public lands and their resource and other values,” a category that includes lands with wilderness characteristics. Guided by the law, the BLM analyzed the potential impacts of various management alternatives on lands with wilderness characteristics in the EIS (environmental impact statement). Only one of the four planning alternatives would protect lands with wilderness characteristics, but this is an option that the BLM is required to consider.
I assure you that Washington County’s concerns about wilderness have been heard.
A couple of more things to keep in mind – the planning process for these areas remains open, and the alternatives we have presented are not carved in stone. The final decision is still months away, but in the meantime, we plan to listen, discuss and consider the opinions of all people and organizations who want to have a hand in shaping the future of these remarkable lands.
While we can’t promise everyone will be satisfied with the outcome of this planning effort, we can pledge that we will listen and that our decisions will be based on the requirements of the law.
Public participation and cooperation is the hallmark of how the BLM manages your public lands. We look forward to working with everyone to provide the best possible plans to conserve the unique resources of southern Utah and encourage sustainable growth. It’s a task that we take very seriously at the BLM. We know what is at stake—the generations of tomorrow in southern Utah depend on our best efforts today.
Submitted by Jenna Whitlock, acting BLM-Utah state director
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