County commissioners in the rural American West possess the daunting authority of Afghan warlords, it’s been said. They wield their power by demanding federal agencies do their bidding in the vast expanse of public lands in which the counties are embedded. Too often, they have their way.
Last month, the Trump administration announced a plan to move the Bureau of Land Management’s top officials out of Washington, D.C., and into regional Western offices. The scheme will only exaggerate the influence of county commissioners, to the detriment of most Americans.
Western counties are enormous. Utah’s largest county, San Juan, at nearly 8,000 square miles, is larger than Connecticut and almost as big as New Jersey. Like many counties in the rural West, San Juan is too dry and too remote for dense settlement; fewer than two people per square mile live there.
Under the Trump administration, local officials in dozens of such unpopulated counties have been flexing their muscles, especially in Utah. A telling photo taken at the Utah Capitol in December 2017 shows a beaming San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams with triumphant fist raised as President Donald Trump eviscerated Bears Ears (within Adams’ southeastern Utah county) and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and signed Adams’ Make San Juan County Great Again cowboy hat.
Trump’s drastic downsizing of Utah’s two big national monuments (reducing Bears Ears by 85%, Grand Staircase by half) grew out of fierce opposition to these designations from rural county commissioners who oppose even the concept of federal public lands.
This spring, Trump’s BLM took two actions in Utah supported by county commissioners and opposed by conservationists. They did so with little or no public discussion, skirting the law.
With a largely closed-door process, the BLM granted Garfield County’s wish to pave a section of the Burr Trail, a scenic backway connecting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through Capitol Reef National Park. County officials, perhaps tipped off in advance, were poised to begin work the moment the final assessment was released. The announcement came on a Monday; by Tuesday, the county had paved two-thirds of the road segment — before conservationists could sue.
A month after the Burr Trail decision, the BLM opened 5,400 acres of public land at Factory Butte in Wayne County to unlimited OHV, or off-highway vehicle use, again with little or no public discussion. This time, the announcement came on the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the busiest weekend of the year for “freeriders” to revel in a newly expanded play area.
Factory Butte, with its intricately sculpted skirt of gray badlands, symbolizes Utah wilderness in worldwide media. For 13 years, off-road vehicles were banned in the area to protect wilderness and scenery, including fragile habitat for two federally listed endangered cactus species. The BLM had no reason to lift this ban other than the Wayne County commissioners’ receptivity to pressure from OHV groups.
The Trump administration is directing the BLM to prioritize local input and access, which translates as deference to the privileged few and as a lack of procedural fairness.
In fact, BLM officials — stewards of lands belonging to the nation, not to states, counties or municipalities — are supposed to serve the interests of us all. Moving them closer to country commissioners bodes poorly for the future of America’s irreplaceable public lands.
Utah writer and conservation advocate Stephen Trimble’s most recent book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”