Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Utah's Red Rock Wilderness Bill

The Red Rock Wilderness Act to protect, as wilderness, about 9 million acres of federal land in Utah raises several interesting issues.

1. What is the best use of wild lands? Resource extraction? Tourism? Motorized recreation? Non-motorized recreation? Conservation in a pristine state? Development?

2. Who has the most valid claim to making decisions about the use of federal lands in Utah? Utahns? Utah's Congresspeople? Counties? Congress at large? Americans at large?

3. Why, again, do we consider Jim Matheson a Democrat?

The primary conservative argument against the Red Rock Wilderness bill is best summed up by Rep. Rob Bishop in his editorial to the Deseret News. It is that the the bill would foreclose a large portion of Utah to economic activity. First, we should make clear that these are lands that are not suitable for commercial or residential development, nor are they anywhere near where any serious development is likely to occur in the foreseeable future. So really we are talking about extraction: oil and gas wells, hardrock mining, and logging.

The assumption is that Utah's economy will benefit more from extractive industries than what is termed as "ecosystem services," which includes such things as:
provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.
Economists have estimated that ecosystem services contribute about $5 trillion each year to the global economy. Really, though, ecosystem services are impossible to quantify because they are irreplaceable. You cannot create through artificial means the natural process that moderates our weather, mitigates droughts and floods, cycles nutrients, controls agricultural pests, purifies the air and water, and more.

Utah, and most of the West, has been beholden to the extractive industries for our entire American existence. Just a fraction of pristine, untouched land remains. It is time we shift our focus from consumption to conservation.

And that is exactly what is happening. A recent Dan Jones & Associates poll, commissioned by SUWA, shows that over 60% of Utahns think that those 9 million acres should be protected as wilderness. SUWA, of course, is biased, but Dan Jones is not, and that is who makes sure the poll is unbiased and objective. More polling should always be done, but that is a pretty good indicator of where Utahns stand on the wilderness issue. Utahns want their undeveloped land to be protected as wilderness.

But Utahns are not the only people with a stake in this issue. These are federal lands, they always have been. They belong to America, and that includes every American. There is a legal doctrine that says that states are in this together and that one state can't discriminate against another. For instance, New York cannot deny landfill space to New Jersey just to make sure there is enough for New York. We have to pool together as a nation.

Americans from Maine to California, from Florida to Alaska, pay taxes that support our federal lands. People from all over the nation come to Utah to experience wilderness. These lands belong to us all. Just as much as the Statue of Liberty, Everglades National Park, and Denali National Park belong to Utahns as much as the residents of the states where they are located. We are in this together as Americans, and all Americans have a right to protect the last vestiges of pristine wilderness in Utah.

So is it really important, as Rep. Bishop wrote, that no Utah Congressperson supports this bill? No. The only thing noteworthy about that is that Jim Matheson continues to win reelection by 10-20 points every year and never takes a stand as a Democrat. He has political capital to stand up for liberals in Utah as our only Democratic representative in Washington, but he never uses it. Like most members of Congress, he appears to make decisions based on maintaining his power and authority than on doing what is right and representing his constituents. It would be a shame if this bill did not pass just because no Utah Congressperson stood up for it, including the perpetually spineless "Democrat" Jim Matheson.

The Red Rock Wilderness bill is good for Utah, economically, ethically, and as a practical matter. It should pass, Utahns want it to pass, Americans want it to pass. We deserve to have our natural, untouched land protected as wilderness both for ourselves and for future generations.

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