Public Lands Initiative: Bad for Wilderness, Bad for Utah

Op-Ed by Cinimin Kofford

As a student, outdoor enthusiast and a lover of the red rock, I am raising my voice against Representative Bishop’s recently released draft of the Public Lands Initiative (PLI).  At first glance the PLI appears to be a conservation bill, but once you learn to read between the lines it is easy to see that this piece of legislation has been greenwashed.

The PLI claims that it is preserving our wild lands, when in reality out of the 4.4 million acres of wilderness-quality land, only 1.7 million have been set aside, and that is including our already protected national parks. With these new and limited designations, the so called “protected” areas are Wilderness in name only. These areas have protection loopholes such as National Conservation Areas, where fossil fuel development is still allowed.

Along with this, the PLI aims to undo much of the progressive legislation that has been put in place by congress to shield the natural world from complete degradation. For example, the PLI overwrites the authority of the Clean Air Act and would make it unnecessary to monitor visibility and protect air quality. This could mean that polluting fossil fuel companies could build right up to the boundary of Wilderness areas, such as our prized and scenic national parks. The cherry on top of it all would be the limitation placed on the Antiquities Act. This limitation would prevent the president from setting aside any other natural or culturally significant land as a national monument (4 of the 5 national parks in Utah were created in such a way).

We were promised a “grand bargain”, a balance between development and conservation. Instead the voices of environmentalists, recreationists, youth, and natives have been ignored and left out. This is our public land, so why have the public been left out of this decision? Not only does this piece of legislation ignore the interests of many Utahns, but it also puts some of our most pristine and untouched Wilderness land in the hands of fossil fuel companies.

The BLM land that currently has no protective status will be labeled and placed into “energy zones”, strictly for the development of fossil fuels. While the rest of the world is congregating to combat climate change, Utah is putting land aside to dirty the air and poison its citizens. Have we not noticed what is happening to our families in the Uintah Basin? Miscarriages and stillbirths have dramatically increased due to the toxic air pollution released through fracking. The Public Lands Initiative is a huge loss for the Wilderness land in Utah and is a loss for future generations.

Instead of promoting a dated and dirty energy, I want to see the land in these “energy zones” set aside to preserve the health of the environment and the health of its citizens. I want this land to remain available to the public; I want this generation and the next to be able to enjoy the solitude, explore the unknown, and be taken aback with wonder from looking up into the vastness of a dark night sky.
This is not the future that Bishop has painted with his initiative, instead the PLI would take us down a path of destruction, disrespect and tragedy.  I fear that my children and my grandchildren will know nothing of the life changing experiences to be had in these Wilderness areas; they will never know the wild areas that I have grown to love.

The draft PLI is a step backward for conservation in Utah, and I will not stand aside to let some of our most pristine Wilderness areas be sold, traded, or developed. I do not want to inherit the destruction the PLI will create and leave my children with but scraps of what was once a beautiful, diverse and thriving landscape. It is time that we make a selfless decision, one to protect our wild areas for the sake of biodiversity, cultural significance, and experiences of future generations.

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