Friday, January 14, 2011

Land Grabs, Choke Holds, and Other Empty Rhetoric

Tonight I am feeling rather dispirited. I find myself living in a state that has been graced with some of the most amazing and unique natural places on the planet, but is led by those who seem to see only dollar signs when they look at these places. They either want to sell them all off to the highest bidder for development or exploitation by mining and energy interest, or they seem to want to allow people on wheels, spewing exhaust, run rampant across them. I live in a state where the ORV interests seem to want access to ever square inch of public land with no regard to those of us who seek solitude in some of these places, and solitude is hard to come by when bombarded by the whine of engines. Don't get me wrong, I do not advocate closing off all lands to ORVs. I have used four-wheelers before and enjoyed myself. I just object to being characterized as some kind of 'radical environmental elitist' (direct quote from Sen. Orrin Hatch) simply because I believe there are places in Utah that deserve to be protected for all generations and for all people; places that deserve to not be scarred by tracks left by indiscriminate ORV users.

According to an Op-Ed piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 12, "about 80 percent of BLM lands in Utah are open for drilling. Yet industry isn’t biting. Through FY 2009, nearly 5 million ares of BLM lands in Utah were under lease, yet only 1,092,640 acres were actually in production, a disparity that exists West-wide. In fact, oil and gas companies now hold leases on over 32.5 million acres of public lands throughout the West that they are not developing. Similarly, in 2009, the BLM issued 4,487 post-leasing permits to drill for oil and gas, and industry did not use 1,220 of those permits." It seems to me that the leadership of this state tends to ignore the great economic benefit the wild lands of Utah are in terms of tourism dollars. It seems to me that they would rather give up a renewable source of income for short-term influxes of cash from selling more permits and leases. ORV interests like to say that wilderness reduces access for them, but they will have no more access once the land is fenced off after being sold to energy interests, or developed for the use of a select few who can afford to purchase homes in exclusive communities.

Sen. Mike Lee stated, "I will not sit idly by while the federal government puts a choke hold on our most valuable resources" (Ibid). Gee, Mike, it seems like those companies who hold the leases already in place really are not that eager to do anything about them. Where is the money that the leases were supposed to bring to the state? Shouldn't the oil, gas, and mining interests develop the land they already have before we sell them more and see more promises of economic development evaporate? How many ghost towns exist in this state as testiment to the fickleness of the energy and mining industries? How many rural communities struggle now because promises of development have gone unfulfilled by those companies who hold leases and permits now?

I also truly wonder how many of our leaders have actually taken the time to really visit some of these places. I know that different people value different things, and many people see southern Utah as nothing more than a vast, ugly desert, but to dismiss the concerns of people who want to see these places protected when you have never spent time there yourself is pathetic in my opinion. There are many people who love and cherish these places. I am proud to count myself among them. There are even people to whom these lands are nothing short of sacred. Allowing the BLM to protect these lands is a land grab? How can it be a land grab when the federal government already owns the land?

I feel at times like the lorax. I see greedy people with friends in the energy industry exploiting the land for short-term gains that seem to ultimately disappear. I truly believe that we are stewards of the earth. I believe that we will be held accountable for what we do to it. I believe that wanton destruction of the earth, in whatever form, is wrong. That does not mean I am against mining and drilling for oil; it just means that I believe there are places that should be valued as resources themselves, rather than as places to be exploited. I truly believe that future generations will either applaud and thank us for our courage in protecting and cherishing the unique places in this state, or they will lament our ignorance and short-sightedness in destroying what can never be replaced.

The photo at the beginning is from Arches National Park, a place that is, thankfully, protected. There are places like this all over Utah, and even if every acre of proposed wilderness was protected as such, the vast majority would still be available for those who see only the dollar signs and not the hand of the Creator in these extraordinary landscapes. I know I have said it before, but I find great peace and rejuvenation in these places. Merilee and I spend the vast majority of my vacation time in these places. They are places that help make the everyday frustrations of life endurable for me. They are places to be cherished. I only wish more of our leaders could see that.