The Bureau of Land Management may be tolling the death knell for the San Rafael Swell.

Bong.The BLM has released its draft resource management plan for the San Rafael region. It does not protect the national park qualities of the San Rafael Swell.

The Swell is an ancient, eroded dome in southern Utah almost entirely within Emery County. It makes up about 40 percent of the resource area's 1.5 million acres, says George Nickas of the Utah Wilderness Association, a long-time champion of the Swell as a national park.

BLM planners have scheduled four open house meetings where the draft plan will be discussed, all from 3 to 8 p.m.: Sept. 20 at Castle Dale, in the Emery County Courthouse; Sept. 22 at Green River, in the Tamarisk Inn; Sept. 27 at Huntington in the city hall; and Sept. 29 at Salt Lake City, in the Salt Palace.

Bong.

The agency examined five basic alternatives, ranging from to continuing present management to maximum use to an emphasis on conservation, then assembled a sixth from pieces of the others. The sixth, Alternative F, is the agency's preferred plan.

Stated goals of Alternative F are to protect critical soils and scenic resources, protect crucial wildlife habitat, provide special management for certain vegetation regions and archaeological values, maintain existing livestock and mineral uses where no conflicts with listed goals would occur.

Management cost would increase 25 to 30 percent over the present expense, rising to $1.5 million per year.

The goals sound good, but they don't gibe with the effects.

"Alternative F is more like a grade than a name," Nickas charged.

"They've ignored what everybody's been telling them for three or four years about the San Rafael Swell. Even Emery County, three years ago, looked at the Swell and said this is a potential national park." Today, the county does not support national park status.

Bong.

"I think the ORV recommendations are a disaster because they don't close anything to off-road vehicles," Nickas said. For about half of the Swell, ORVs would be uncontrolled; for the other half, they would be restricted to designated roads and trails. "But they haven't identified the roads and trails."

Presently, the entire region is open to unrestricted ORV recreation.

Under the preferred alternative, 761,82 acres would be open, 61,060 acres would have seasonal restrictions such as no motorcycles during Rocky Mountain bighorn lambing time, on 711,840 acres vehicles would be restricted to designated roads and trails, and 4,470 acres would be closed.

Bong.

The plan doesn't break down the acreage as to which parts are within the Swell and which aren't, but its maps show that no part of the Swell would be flat closed.

"There are 230,000 acres on the San Rafael Swell that the BLM has recommended for wilderness, and they're not even willing to close those areas to off-road vehicles," Nickas said.

Six relatively small, scattered areas of critical environmental concern would be established to protect pictographs, mines, and the Swasey Cabin. The total is just 22,170 acres of the 1.5 million - 1.4 percent.

Currently, no oil is pumped from the San Rafael Resource Area, and only 44.7 million cubic feet of natural gas is produced per year. The preferred alternative projects an increase to 13,200 barrels of oil and 754 million cubic feet of gas by the year 2000.

The plan drops practically all of Sids Mountain from a protective category in oil and gas leasing, Nickas said.

"They've opened the Swell to increased oil and gas development," he said.

Bong.

"They look at the San Rafael (Swell) like it's a doughnut. They provide protection here and there in the perimeter. But in the middle, it's open to off-road vehicles, it's wide open; it's open to oil and gas."

James W. Dryden, San Rafael Resource Area Manager, Price, said that with off-road vehicles, "there has to be an identifiable resource conflict" before an area is closed. Restricting ORVs to designated roads and trails in some areas lets the BLM better manage the resource, he said.

He conceded the management plan doesn't show which roads and trails would be designated open to ORVs, within these regions. An ORV plan will be prepared after the management plan is adopted.

If Alternative F is accepted, the BLM could then decide that every little side trail and track across the sand is open to ORVs - amounting to no protection for one of America's finest desert regions.

Those concerned about the San Rafael Swell are asked to endorse a blank check. That doesn't seem a wise move.

Bong.