Millions of New Yorkers who passed through Times Square may have seen Utahn Glen Lathrop appear on the Jumbotron as he explores a remote canyon near Moab. An avid outdoorsman, Glen helped a film crew locate spectacular shots for a larger documentary they are producing on the Canyonlands region.
Since January, a clip including Glen has aired hourly every day. It depicts the area’s beauty with its vast canyons and untouched wilderness. Then the clip shows gross, dirty water flowing from a tar sands operation. The text from the clip reads “This Land is Your Land.” Then the film prompts viewers to visit the Greater Canyonlands website.
The environmental left says: We must stop Gary Herbert, the Tea Party and the gas and oil-loving corporations from exploiting our land. The conservative right says: We can’t allow the federal government to control our land-use, our right to state land, and kill our tourism industry by dictating our land policy from Washington.
This debate is an important one, and if you aren’t set in the trenches on either the far left or the far right, it becomes difficult to know who or what to believe. It’s clear that Washington and the Obama administration currently hold an ace-in-the-hole. Obama could use the Antiquities Act to make the Greater Canyonlands a “national monument.” President Clinton did this to the Kaiparowits Plateau and the Escalante in 1996. But Utah politicians certainly wouldn’t take this move lying down. In fact, in March 2011, Utah’s Governor Herbert signed HB148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act. The act declares that by 2014 the United States must convey to Utah 30 million acres of land.
Lathrop hiked in the Canyonlands with environmentalist author Edward Abbey many times in the early 1980’s and was mentioned by Abbey in one of his journals published after his death. Abbey’s influence is obvious in Lathrop’s view of the current situation. “I support this monument proposal but I know on the local level there is a lot of fear surrounding the proposal that has to do with a perceived loss of control of the lands. A lot of this fear is unfounded. Glen Canyon, for example, has hundreds of miles of Jeep roads. Mojave Desert allows camping anywhere. Someone on the national level needs to speak out and say this is an issue that is important to whole country. This place is of national importance.”
On November 14, ten days after the 2012 election, Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, signed a terse letter to President Obama strongly objecting to any use of the Antiquities Act to establish any national monuments in Utah.
A week after the Utah delegates’ opposition letter, the Outdoor Industry Association’s 100+ members signed another letter to President Obama asking him to declare the Greater Canyonlands a national monument saying, “The wild nature of Greater Canyonlands could be negated by proposals for oil and gas drilling, potash and uranium mining and tar sands strip mining.”
Herbert says he is prepared to go to court to obtain the land and manage it in the state’s best interests. He signed the bill despite the objections of state attorneys who told him it was unconstitutional.
Herbert and the Republican legislature liken themselves to a second Sagebrush Rebellion, reminiscent of the 1980s movement when western states demanded that the federal government cede more control of federally owned lands to state and local authorities. In an August 1980 campaign stump speech in Salt Lake City, Ronald Reagan told the crowd, “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel.”
If Herbert and the Utah legislature get their way, tar sands mining and new gas wells are possible on pristine sites near Canyonlands. If the feds prevail, more restrictions are probable for mineral extraction.
In January 2013, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining gave its final approval to a Canadian corporation for the first-in-the-US, commercial tar sands strip mining operation at PR Springs in the Book Cliffs near Moab. An area known as the “tar sands triangle”, encompassing 200-square miles, is located in southeast Utah between the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers. Energy companies now hold leases for tar sands strip mining. The Grand Canyon Trust says:
Deep canyons and vertical cliffs are inappropriate for heavy industrial development and destruction by strip mining. Any commitment of land and water resources to this greenhouse-gas-intensive form of energy development would threaten water quality and quantity in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Commercial tar sands strip mining here would end water security for millions of downstream users in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexico, and other places in the arid West relying on the Colorado River.
Stay tuned for the other side of the debate…