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My view: Emery County residents oppose Public Lands Initiative

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert laugh during a press conference to release and explain a discussion draft of the Utah Public Lands Initiative at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert laugh during a press conference to release and explain a discussion draft of the Utah Public Lands Initiative at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

To rural Utah residents, Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative is seen as "shortsighted." The proposal touted as a "grand compromise" would set aside nearly 2.6 million acres of cultural landscapes, animal habitats and scenic canyon country for energy development. This includes an unprecedented siege of Emery County's San Rafael Swell — a move residents staunchly oppose.

"(The proposal) could never outweigh the long-term negative impact on our lands," said Hollie Smith, a sixth-generation Emery County resident. "I hold these lands dearest to my heart. I would hate to see the beauty and culture lost to greedy hands." Her husband, Geoff Smith, concurred. "They are selling us, and our rich history, out."

The Smiths are not alone. Together with ranchers, hikers, off-road enthusiasts, archaeological organizations and other concerned Emery County residents, they delivered a request to permanently protect key landscapes from energy development within the PLI. When the initiative’s draft was revealed, the region was not only pulled but transformed into an immense energy zone.

Clawson resident Susan Simmons said the proposal feels like an invasion. "There are so many sacred writings that have been honored for hundreds of years as it stands," she said. "There are some beautiful wildlands and quiet homes for a variety of native wildlife. I feel this concept of development in this precious part of our lands to be a threat to so much."

Simmons is correct. Of the 2.6 million acres, 94 percent is said to have never been formally inventoried for cultural resources by land managers. If overlaid with my own cultural resource inventories, well over 1,500 panels of ancient rock art would be seriously impacted by the proposal in just one of the innumerable energy zones. Furthermore, several rivers widely touted as "dense and scenic cultural landscapes" are consumed by additional energy swaths.

Tiffani Baker, an Orangeville resident, pointed out: "We should be working toward protecting this area’s archaeological, geological, paleontological and historical sites from gas and oil drilling, not encouraging it."

Emery High educators Jim Keele and Diane Carter agree. "(The area) is literally an outdoor museum," Keele said. Carter added that any destruction would be "a tragedy that would be impossible from which to recover."

The sentiment from Emery County residents is clear: Not only are they concerned about the impacts but they are overwhelmingly skeptical of any economic benefits.

"Development closes the area so people cannot come to see it. The county will lose money," said Megan Kemple, an Orangeville resident.

Geoff Smith added, "This proposal is suicide for rural communities. We don't have a reliable oil and gas resource. It commits us to something we can't offer."

The ranchers who actively graze on these lands fear the proposal will push them out of the county. "I'm sure the energy zones will inhibit access to the places my cattle graze. Even if that's not the case, I hear about cattle being injured around oil wells all the time. I can't afford to lose any more than I have," said a rancher who asked to be left anonymous. "Bishop nor our county officials represent us."

Despite county endorsement of this legislation, the county residents see a different story. As Carter put it, "Sportsmen in the area are going crazy over this proposal — so against it. I have not heard anything but frustration and anger." As for what they advise, Wayne and Sheresa Jensen from Elmo suggest that "rather than developing this area, maybe we should be protecting it for posterity."

Jonathan Bailey is an artist and author of his latest book: "Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape." You can find him on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/jonathanbaileyphoto/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/BaileyImages), and his website (http://www.baileyimages.com).