A Major Agreement That is Good News for Utah Wilderness

Just some of the trout to be found in the Green River, where state surveys have found that this wild and scenic river averages a population of 15,000 trout per square mile.
Credit: Photo Credit: EWConner flickr

Today marks an important day for wilderness conservation in Utah. As part of Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative, NRDC along with its coalition partners – the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and Grand Canyon Trust – have formally agreed with Rep. Bishop, Daggett County, and the State of Utah to a support a new wilderness and lands conservation package for Daggett County, Utah. This region, situated in the northeastern part of Utah, and bordered by Colorado and Wyoming, is predominantly defined by high roadless mountain forests, river canyons, and alpine peaks. The area includes the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and the Green River, one of the most prolific trout fishing rivers in the world. This mountainous region also acts an important wildlife connector between the Northern Rockies and the Southern Rockies, particularly for lynx and bears.

The consensus agreement would designate 82,408 acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands for permanent protection as wilderness. It would also classify an additional 31,083 acres of federal land for a separate conservation area that would be managed to conserve wildlife and habitat. In addition, approximately 14 miles of the Green River would be included in the Wild and Scenic River System. In return, the state will be given the right to consolidate over 20,000 thousand acres of Utah school trust lands by trading current inholdings that reside inside federally managed areas. This process will allow the state to maximize economic opportunities for the region by being afforded the ability to govern more manageable contiguous allotments, as opposed to the unwieldy checkerboard pattern of state lands which is the current norm.

For a number of reasons, NRDC is quite excited by the prospect of permanently protecting this area. Utah, despite having nearly 12 million acres of wilderness quality lands, has only one million permanently designated acres of wilderness. Much of that wilderness is under threat from unchecked development, particularly oil and gas drilling. Hence, this agreement protects the lion share of wilderness lands found in the county. We also did not go into this agreement lightly, noting the significance of agreeing to a set of principles with Rep. Bishop, along with the state and county. Compromise, by definition, almost invariably results in some discomfort. For instance, the agreement will recognize the viability of a number of discrete motorized offroad vehicle trails (outside the designated wilderness areas).

To place this agreement into further context, NRDC has also been somewhat skeptical over the last decade of a series of legislative wilderness packages that have been introduced that do little to advance environmental protection, and rather sanction the expansion of industrial activities that would negatively impact the very lands such packages purport to protect. And to say that NRDC and Rep. Bishop do not always see eye to eye on how federal lands should be best managed is probably an understatement. That is why this agreement is so significant – that all of these diverse parties were able to agree to a series of principles that sets out to identify the most deserving lands for protection, while also recognizing that other public lands are more suitable for economic development. In that regard, we commend Congressman Bishop and his staff for their leadership and commitment in working to set aside our longstanding differences, and demonstrating that common ground on conservation is achievable. Much still has to be done in order to pass legislation that will result in this accord being realized, but we believe today’s good news can serve as a blueprint in going forward. 

View a map depicting the lands in the Daggett County conservation agreement (pdf).