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Curtis' Public Lands Bill Gets Hearing But Some Conservation Groups Say They Weren't Invited

BLM land outside of Goblin Valley State Park in Emery County, Utah.
Claire Jones
BLM land outside of Goblin Valley State Park in Emery County, Utah.

A congressional panel took up legislation Thursday to protect more public land in the San Rafael Swell.

U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Provo, proposed a bill that would designate wilderness, a new conservation area, a historic preservation site and a national monument - all in Emery County.

The bill comes six months after the Trump administration removed more than 2 million acres of national monument protection from three other Utah counties. And, like the shrunken monuments, Curtis’ proposal is being denounced by environmental groups.

“We targeted the areas that are most broadly supported for the highest level of wilderness protection,” Curtis said in the hearing. “And we utilize the conservation area to highlight the unique history and multiple historic uses of the area.”


The Emery County Public Land Management Act, heard by the House Public Lands Subcommittee on Thursday, would give permanent wilderness protection to land now in Wilderness Study Areas. The bill establishes a new conservation area called the San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining District and creates a new “Jurassic National Monument” at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.


Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson testified that locals and various interest groups have been working on the concept for more than two decades. He said the compromise addresses conservation goals that are broadly shared by anyone who’s spent time on the Swell.


The San Rafael “is not just a pretty place. It’s not just scenery,” Johnson said. “It is one of the most amazing, unique blends of human history and beautiful rocks anywhere in the world.”


Some environmental groups and public land advocates support the bill, according to a congressional memorandum.

But the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are part of a coalition of environmental groups that strongly opposes the bill. Among other criticisms, they said in a news release that Curtis’ legislation undermines conservation by allowing roads in protected areas and omits popular areas like Muddy Creek.

Coalition members said they weren’t invited to testify during Thursday’s hearing.

Curtis’ bill has just one cosponsor, Hawaii Democrat Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, filed an identical version of the bill in the Senate, where the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has not taken action yet.  


CORRECTION, June 22: KUER incorrectly reported that The Access Fund, a organization that advocates for keeping U.S. rock climbing areas open, and the Conservation Alliance, an environmentalist group, support Curtis' bill.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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