The Utah Diné Bikéyah proposal for public lands in eastern Utah will include recommendations for large chunks of wilderness both inside and outside of its proposed 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area.
But while those possible wilderness designations are intended to protect sites important to Native Americans for herb-gathering, ceremonial purposes, and cultural significance, some concern has arisen about how they would affect the gathering of firewood.
Many residents of the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation heat their homes entirely with wood, much of it gathered from Cedar Mesa, a 470-square-mile plateau in San Juan County, Utah. The mesa, an archaeologically rich area managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is already the site of a number of wilderness study areas, and an undefined amount of it would be formally designated as wilderness under Diné Bikéyah’s proposal.
“The amount of acres and exact locations [of wilderness] still need to be defined by our board,” said Gavin Noyes, executive director of Diné Bikéyah. “The existing wilderness study areas are already about one-third to one-half of the NCA we propose.”
Motorized and mechanized vehicles and equipment are not permitted in designated wilderness. Exceptions are made for emergencies such as wildfires where other alternatives do not exist.
Nick Sandberg, San Juan County’s liaison to state and federal agencies, told the Free Press the wilderness designations proposed by Diné Bikéyah would indeed impact wood-gathering.
“There seems to be some misunderstanding about the huge expanses of wilderness included in the Diné Bikéyah proposal and what that would mean,” Sandberg said. “Collecting firewood [by motorized means off-road] would not be allowable in those areas. That eliminates chainsaws and trucks.
“It would be very impractical to harvest much wood by hand and on horse for any large number of residential needs. Commissioner [Rebecca] Benally [who represents District 3, a largely Navajo district] seems to understand that and I think Diné Bikéyah is possibly rethinking the wilderness designations.”
BLM national monuments and national conservation areas do allow motorized access and wood and plant harvest in designated areas, depending on the management plan for each area.
A WSA is a roadless area of 5,000 acres or more that has been inventoried and found to have wilderness characteristics but that has not been designated by Congress as wilderness. The BLM manages WSAs to protect their value as wilderness until Congress decides whether or not to designate them. Some WSAs are managed exactly the same as wilderness areas, but in others, activities may be allowed that are generally prohibited in wilderness. In a WSA, access by motor vehicles may be allowed on routes existing at the time of the WSA inventory.
“The BLM already manages existing wilderness study areas as if they are wilderness and that won’t change,” Noyes said.
Cedar Mesa contains numerous roads, from paved highways to two-tracks. Conflict exists over the definition of a road. For the BLM, a road is a route regularly maintained. For San Juan County, it can be a non-maintained two-track.
The BLM and Forest Service no longer allow driving off-road on public lands, but in San Juan County the BLM generally does not penalize people for driving on old two-tracks that it may not consider actual roads. The two-track issue is yet to be resolved and could pose a problem for future access on Cedar Mesa.
Brian Quigley, assistant manager of the BLM Monticello Field Office, said there are 389,444 acres of WSA in San Juan County. “We manage any conflicts by educating the public about the regulations, including that they can’t drive off designated routes. Sometimes some fencing around archaeological sites is needed and law enforcement.
“We just finished producing a video in the Navajo language for Diné who are seeking a wood permit. It will be posted on our web site soon.”
If a WSA changes to wilderness, the management plan can be adjusted. There is some flexibility, said Quigley. “It has lots of public input at the time it is written.”
New wilderness designations would mean no new road construction, Noyes said, but current road access would remain open.
There is conflict over some areas, he admitted. “The BLM manages that [conflict] between wood-cutting and other interests, such as archaeological sites, within their guideline manuals. We are working with them.
“As an example, in the past the BLM would burn big slash piles of piñon and juniper cleared from the forests, but last summer we worked with them to bring the wood to a central treatment site, where it was distributed to Navajo residents for free.
“It was successful and represented a big shift in the collection process cutting out the long drive to get a permit as well as individual impact on the land.”
He said Diné Bikéyah’s goal this summer is to get Navajo crews working with groups like the Southwest Conservation Corps, based in Durango, Colo. Their projects include measuring woodland inventory, valuable data for understanding the impact of wood-cutting and identifying resources available for harvest.
The map of the Diné Bikéyah proposal appears to suggest a new type of management to protect special places but allow for firewood-collection.
It includes the following statement in its key to designations:
“Nahodishgish/Wilderness Units – Many roadless areas inside the Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area are proposed as ‘places to be left alone’ by the Navajo Nation. This category will mean either Wilderness or a new kind of management designation to accommodate firewood-collection in some cultural-use areas.”