Monday, March 29, 2010

Utah's Governor: Screw the National Parks and Let's Mine Coal and Oil!

I came across a disturbing bit of news in today's Washington Post: the governor of Utah is claiming eminent domain over areas of fantastic scenic beauty currently owned by the federal government--for the purposes of mining those areas for their natural resources.  That's right, as a measure of our slash-and-burn, rape-the-land need for ever-more resources (and not to mention the "drill baby drill" screed popularized by a certain "expert" in domestic energy policy), Gov. Herbert signed a pair of laws which would take land the federal government had protected and presumably open the lands to mine away the coal, oil, and natural gas contained therein.

In particular, Utah's governor wants to take portions of the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument, protected by Bill Clinton in 1996, as well as parts of national parks and designated wild areas and turn them over to development and mineral exploitation (77 oil and gas leases scrapped last year by the Interior Department).  Given the environment-destroying antics typically involved--like mountaintop removal coal mining in WV--it's a fair bet that these scenic lands would be permanently disfigured for the short-term gain of a bit of coal and oil.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns on Utah's part.  The federal government holds nearly 60% of the state's land by area.  Some of the lands absorbed into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had been designated, through their development, to raise money to pay for Utah's public school systems.  But the feds compensated Utah for the latter loss, giving them mineral rights on other lands plus a chunk of cash for the schools, too.

Utah's is claiming the feds "should have sold the land by now," which to me completely misses the point of federal ownership of land for public use and trust.  The US is holding those lands to protect them and preserve them for future generations; selling them to Utah or to private concerns without an irrevocable protective clause in place (e.g. the lands must remain undeveloped and unexploited in perpetuity) would amount to the US government failing to uphold its duty.

My biggest worry is that no one will really care.  It's like the mountaintop removal mining going on in West Virginia and other coal states, which is an absolutely atrocious destruction of the one enduring resource the Mountain State possesses: its natural beauty--not to mention the lasting damage done to the environment by such an abhorrent practice.  In low-population areas, particularly those with struggling economies, it's very difficult to attract national interest, and too often the local populace simply takes for granted what they risk losing, all in the myopic pursuit of yet another strip mall and the gas needed to drive there.

And then, "it's just a desert."  And it's remote.  Through the 20th century, we as a nation lost some of our most scenic natural wonders because they were "useless" lands; for example, many unique rock formations and gorges were flooded beneath the reservoirs of the dambuilding mania of the Bureau of Reclamation (Flaming Gorge in Utah being one well-known case, itself a "sacrifice" in a lengthy battle by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups--and one they later came to regret, alongside the loss of Glen Canyon to Lake Powell).  Not enough people have seen the beauty of the area to care, and, heck, heck, a fair chunk of people probably wouldn't care even if they'd seen first-hand the wonders of the West; so long as they can get cheap gas and electricity and have a convenience store within a few blocks (to which they'd drive, mind you, never walk), who cares about "nature," they say.

And that's the real tragedy here.

(p.s. I'm hoping to go out to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as Goblin Valley and some of the other fantastic natural wonders of that part of Utah at the end of April, with Beth... if the trip happens, I'll be SURE to post photos so you can see exactly why I'm so concerned by this news.)

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