Ella Mighell: Rainbows of the Dirty Devil

ellaEight days into our sandal and sock slodge through the Dirty Devil, we left behind a campsite with an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl and fossilized Grallator tracks, headed for higher ground. Today we would be hiking on a road, in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area on BLM land in a canyon described as “extremely isolated.” As we hiked we stopped to observe purple blooming fishhook cacti, changing geological layers from the Paleozoic period, petrified wood, pictographs from the ancient Fremont, and a 2007 mining claim preserved in a PVC pipe. Standing on top of a Shinarump Formation terrace, the late morning sun was still on our backs as we faced the yellow, red and purple layered Chinle Formation. Below our feet were water-weathered stones from the ancestral Rockies. We were on “roadless” Wilderness Study Area (WSA) land, but were using an illegal mining road from the late 70s. My mind wandered to what this landscape would have looked like if large-scale mining had taken place in the uranium filled Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations; would it even be open to the public, and what would these canyons have become if gas prices increased and uranium became more profitable?

I was finding that the Dirty Devil was a place of contrasting truths. At first it welcomed with its varnish stripped canyon walls and blooming desert primroses. Then it betrayed, the sun blistering my neck and quicksand engulfing me to my hips. Land management of the Dirty Devil is also bewildering in its conflicting and complex ways.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contorts its management plans to fit several contrasting missions. Through a presentation and discussion with a BLM manager, I came to understand the muddied management practices, why I had never heard of the BLM before coming to Utah, and why there was a mining road in the middle of WSA land. This includes their complicated history of admittedly poor public communications and original agency formation from the 1946 forced marriage of the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office.

The BLM was created to manage public lands for grazing, mining, oil and gas. It wasn’t until 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that BLM management was expanded to include recreation and wilderness in their 270 million acres. The BLM multiple use management gets pretty contradictory when they are mandated to facilitate resource extraction, and also preserve the natural integrity of that land. Things get even more complicated when we include state sections. Basically the state of Utah is strongly incentivized to sell or swap school sections to extractive energy companies. Ironically, the state is also pushing their industrial tourism sector in neighboring areas. According to the manager we spoke with, BLM offices, while trying to base their management plans on science, are mostly driven by social values.

To throw some more sand in this Dirty Devil, local culture is often at odds with federal land control, but many ranchers have subsidized grazing leases on this public land. The BLM’s relationship with environmental groups is often just as polar. The state wants the BLM to give more access to the extractive agencies, while environmentalists think the BLM has given too much. Basically the BLM is at the center of a complex love triangle where one spouse supports the BLM while in litigation with the opposing love interest, and the other way around.

One of the main takeaways from speaking with the BLM manager was that people value public land for different reasons. My relationship with natural landscapes most likely looks very different than yours, but both views have equal value and salience. Public values are multidimensional, and as values change, so must management practices. The complex mission of the BLM’s multiple use management was created in a conflictive system where collaboration and compromises were not encouraged. Yet here I sit on a Shinarump Formation overlook, surrounded by orange canyon walls contrasting with the blue sky. This section of the Dirty Devil has been determined to have “designated wilderness characteristics” and is a Wilderness Study Area. Tomorrow we will hike out of the WSA, and although a fence does not mark the divide, the complex history of this landscape does.

Many Utahans support a mining future, finding hope in the extractive industries and continuing their culture of freedom and rebellion in the wild west. Others, from both in-state and out, hold a similarly strong love and hope for these wild lands, but expressed very differently through federal protection and land use limitations. I fall on the latter side of this divide, but I know that no issue in southeastern Utah is simply environmentalism versus extraction. However, I do question the standing of my opinions as a visitor on these publicly owned lands, without a tie to the local economic well-being of the area.  As I hike further down the Dirty Devil, black and white issues are further greying in complexity, or as Dave, one of our instructors says, it is simply rain-bowing.

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