Moving the Bureau of Land Management puts our public lands in peril - GulfToday

Moving the Bureau of Land Management puts our public lands in peril

Trump-and-Cory-Gardner

Donald Trump and Cory Gardner.

Stephen Trimble, Tribune News Service

County commissioners in the rural American West possess the daunting authority of Afghan warlords, it’s been said. They wield their power by demanding federal agencies do their bidding in the vast expanse of public lands in which the counties are embedded. Too often, they have their way.

Last month, the Trump administration announced a plan to move the Bureau of Land Management’s top officials out of Washington and into regional Western offices. The scheme will only exaggerate the influence of county commissioners, to the detriment of most Americans.

Western counties are enormous. Utah’s largest county, San Juan, at nearly 8,000 square miles, is larger than Connecticut and almost as big as New Jersey. Like many counties in the rural West, San Juan is too dry and too remote for dense settlement; fewer than two people per square mile live there.

Under the Trump administration, local officials in dozens of such unpopulated counties have been flexing their muscles, especially in Utah. A telling photo taken at the Utah Capitol in December 2017 shows a beaming San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams with triumphant fist raised as President Trump eviscerated Bears Ears (within Adams› southeastern Utah county) and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and signed Adams’ Make San Juan County Great Again cowboy hat.

Trump’s drastic downsizing of Utah’s two big national monuments (reducing Bears Ears by 85%, Grand Staircase by half) grew out of fierce opposition to these designations from rural county commissioners who oppose even the concept of federal public lands. The Utah congressional delegation and the governor amplified their voices, and helped the president ignore nearly 3 million comments from citizens across the country who urged that the monuments remain intact.

Like most Utah elected officials, county commissioners tend to be more extreme politically than their constituents. The state’s culture almost guarantees the election of conservative Republican members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The overwhelmingly white power structure shows little respect for Native nations concerned about the future of their sacred lands. “Official” Utah often scorns more liberal, urban Wasatch Front residents who value conservation over extraction.

Groups such as the regional Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, whose members support the restoration of Grand Staircase, are marginalized.

This spring, Trump’s BLM took two actions in Utah supported by county commissioners and opposed by conservationists. They did so with little or no public discussion, skirting the law.

Utah’s Garfield and Wayne counties, settings for these imperious actions, each has less than 4% private land. Garfield is Utah’s most sparsely inhabited county, where 5,078 people live across 5,208 square miles. Neighboring Wayne is a close match, with 2,719 folks in 2,466 square miles. Together, they contain portions of three national parks, one national monument, two national forests and a national recreation area, enhancing the heritage of the 99.9998% of American citizens who don›t live there but share in their ownership.

With a largely closed-door process, the BLM granted Garfield County’s wish to pave a section of the Burr Trail, a scenic backway connecting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through Capitol Reef National Park. County officials, perhaps tipped off in advance, were poised to begin work the moment the final assessment was released. The announcement came on a Monday; by Tuesday, the county had paved two-thirds of the road segment — before conservationists could sue.

For decades, backcountry enthusiasts and the National Park Service have fought to preserve this adventurous backcountry dirt road. Elected officials of Garfield County have strived just as hard to see the whole route paved.