Public lands are a sensitive subject in Utah, but collaborative work in 2018 brought about national law that many people in the Moab area have been paying attention to for its impacts on federal lands.

On March 12, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act; included in the national act is the Emery County Public Lands Management Act.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act outlines new management strategies for parcels of undeveloped public lands throughout the nation and creates new, expanded or continued designations and protections. The Emery County Public Lands Management Act includes protections for the San Rafael Swell and a section of Labyrinth Canyon, described by Moab outdoor educator Chris Benson as being “in some of Utah’s most impressive canyon country.”

Including the Emery County Public Lands Management Act, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson said the national act “consists of more than 100 individual bills that were introduced by 50 Senators and several House members.”

While several other sections of the law affect other parts of Utah, the Emery County Public Lands Management Act is closest to Moab, with a section of Labyrinth Canyon in Grand County that is not included in the act.

The San Rafael Swell, a largely undeveloped expanse of desert in Emery County, provides outdoor recreationists with many opportunities for hiking, biking, climbing and canyoneering, and is treasured by conservationists and archaeologists. 

The Emery County Public Lands Management Act was sponsored by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah). Curtis also sponsored the Endangered Fish Recovery Programs Extension Act.

The Emery County Public Lands Management Act establishes the 216,995-acre San Rafael Swell Recreation Area and designates 661,155 acres of wilderness in Emery County. Wilderness areas are restrictive of certain activities, including motorized travel. 

The bill also designates 63 miles of the Green River as a “Wild and Scenic River,” placing protective regulations on use, and expands Goblin Valley State Park to include lands formerly managed by the BLM, including popular slot canyon and hiking destinations Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon.

The establishment of Jurassic National Monument, an area with a concentration of fossils and dinosaur bones, is also included in the act. The new monument will be just east of Huntington, and encompasses 850 acres. Along with these major boundaries, many small land conveyances were made between federal agencies and city or county agencies to facilitate appropriate uses. For example, Emery County received 320 acres to expand the Huntington Airport and 5 acres for a substation of the sheriff’s office. 

In another provision of the act, the BLM will exchange acreage with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).

SITLA’s mission is to use lands set aside by the state to raise funds for education. Those funds may be generated in partnership with private businesses, from energy and mineral royalties, and real estate and surface development. In a press release following the passage of the law, Curtis said “the legislation generates millions of dollars through school trust land exchanges to help Utah’s school children.” 

According to documents provided by a SITLA spokesperson, “approximately 90,000 acres are poised for SITLA acquisition from BLM statewide.”

In turn, SITLA will turn over approximately 108,000 acres to the BLM, the spokesperson said.

Though the acreages are not exactly the same, the lands traded are considered of equal value.

Of those acres traded from SITLA to the BLM, 82,000 acres are in the San Rafael Swell in both Emery and Wayne counties.

Many of the parcels to be received by SITLA are also in Emery County, adding up to nearly 20,000 acres. There are 267 acres being turned over to SITLA in Grand County, as well 1,347 acres in San Juan County.

The Grand County parcel expands an existing trust lands block near Cisco, providing water access from the Colorado River. The Emery County parcels are slated to be developed in various ways, including coal mining, solar energy production, surface development and mineral exploration.

Curtis extolled the act as a victory for local stakeholders and compromise between users. In his press release following the passage of the law, he thanked his colleagues, former Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Mitt Romney and praised those who worked on the bill. 

“This bill represents decades of outreach, where local leaders worked hard to create broad consensus among a diverse range of priorities,” he said. 

The act has earned admiration from a broad range of lobbyists and groups, including the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, SITLA, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Conservation Alliance, the Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Alliance, the Access Fund and the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Patagonia, an outdoor retailer that also donates to environmental causes, praised the bill.

“Southeast Utah is home to good rock climbing, mountain biking and other outdoor recreational opportunities that we want protected for future generations,” said J.J. Huggins, a Patagonia spokesperson. “We’re proud to support local groups, such as Friends of Cedar Mesa and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, who work to protect Utah’s remaining wild places. Over the course of our company’s history, we have donated more than $2.5 million to environmental groups in Utah working on a variety of projects, including public lands issues.” 

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a nonprofit conservation organization focused on this region, celebrated the passage of the bill.

But in 2018 SUWA opposed the bill. It was amended to address what SUWA considered to be flaws, such as failing to protect Labyrinth Canyon as wilderness, which the bill now does.

On its website, SUWA applauds the wilderness designations and the Wild and Scenic Rivers designations, as well as the SITLA land exchanges.

The organization does acknowledge that the bill was still a compromise, however.

The website notes, “On the negative side of the ledger, approximately 17,500 acres of Wilderness Study Areas will be released back to multiple-use BLM management, with a portion potentially allowing for the expansion of a coal mine in the western Book Cliffs.”

For locals, concerns linger over the extent of the act. At a recent town hall meeting held at Star Hall, Curtis has addressed questions in Moab about why only the Emery County side of Labyrinth Canyon is protected in the act and not the section of the canyon on the Grand County side.

Moab local Tony Mancuso spoke up about this issue to Curtis at a recent town hall meeting, noting that Labyrinth Canyon is the political boundary between the two counties.

“As a riparian ecologist,” Mancuso said, “I have some concerns about a ‘Scenic’ [of the Wild and Scenic River] designation on one side of the river, while the other side of the river is unprotected.” 

Curtis responded by agreeing that it doesn’t make sense to protect only one side of the canyon and river and not the other side, but he revealed just how tense compromise over the bill had become.

“It became very clear to us in this process, that if we expanded the scope of the Emery County bill, then it would die,” Curtis explained. “So we made a hard decision to just take it forward and leave it at that boundary.” 

Mathew Gross, media director for SUWA, agreed that the other side of Labyrinth Canyon still needs protection.

“This bill protects Labyrinth Canyon on the western side, from Red Wash above Bull Bottom down to Canyonlands National Park, and now we just need to do the same on the eastern side,” He said. “The gains from the Emery County bill set the stage for full protection of Labyrinth Canyon as wilderness whenever discussions resume on protecting public lands in Grand County.”

Grand County officials have not announced plans to discuss protections in Grand County.

San Rafael Swell and a section of Labyrinth Canyon impacted by legislation

“This bill represents decades of outreach, where local leaders worked hard to create broad consensus among a diverse range of priorities.”