SALT LAKE CITY — A group of young student leaders from multiple universities along the Wasatch Front said they do not want the shortsightedness of today's political leaders to ruin their chances — and their children's chances — of being able to enjoy Utah's untamed landscapes.
The students drafted a letter to President Barack Obama and Utah's congressional delegation voicing their opposition to the Public Lands Initiative being crafted by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz.
On Tuesday after a press conference, they also delivered the letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
"The draft PLI is a step back for conservation in Utah," said Logan Christian, vice president of Utah State University's Student Organization for Society and Natural Resources.
Christian asserted that student groups were among those left out of the public meetings soliciting input for land uses being carved out for 18 million acres in seven eastern Utah counties.
"The Public Lands Initiative ignores the voice of Wasatch Front residents who suffer from poor air quality," he added.
The students said they researched the draft legislation unveiled in January and have been in touch with local environmental organizations to learn more about the proposal. They said they have also talked to local county commissioners in impacted counties: Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Summit and Uintah.
Cinimin Kofford, a member of Utah Valley University's sustainability committee, said the proposed legislation ignores protections for the San Juan River — one of the last wild rivers of the West — and of 4.4 million "wilderness quality" lands in Utah, the measure proposes to safeguard only 1.7 million acres.
"That is huge loss for future generations," she said.
Many of the students said they have visited San Juan County's Bears Ears area, and made a renewed call for the creation of a Bears Ears National Monument spanning 1.9 milion acres.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has been pushing for the new monument, saying a national conservation area designated in Bishop's bill does not go far enough to protect the Native American sacred area from looting, off-vehicle highway use and other degradations of cultural resources.
The question of how much land should be protected and in what manner has sparked contradictory assertions among Native Americans about who speaks for who and what ideological position should prevail.
Last Friday, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally said local, Utah Navajo do not want a monument designation for the area because it would interfere with Native American uses on the land. She added that it is offensive that others want to create a monument in the name of "romanticizing" the Native Americans and by pandering.
Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the Navajo conservation nonprofit Utah Dine Bikeyah, in response stressed that Native Americans are united locally and nationally to see the "treasures" of Bears Ears protected and Benally is in the minority.
Students on Tuesday emphasized they believe the public lands planning process behind Bishop's proposal caters to oil and gas development — one student repeated the environmental movement's mantra of "Keep It in the Ground" — and not enough landscapes are protected for their natural value.
The measure is flawed, said Westminster College's Eyrie Horton, because it includes 2.5 million acres as energy zones and is a "broken crutch" that props up fossil fuels.