Randy T Simmons, PhD

Utah State University

Ryan M Yonk, PhD

Southern Utah University



Kayla Dawn Harris & Megan Hansen

Center for Public Lands and Rural Economics

Introduction to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA)

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1983, has established its reputation as an uncompromising advocate for the preservation of wilderness. At its founding SUWA’s stated goal was “to defend America’s red rock wilderness from oil and gas development, unnecessary road construction, rampant off-road vehicle use, and other threats to Utah’s wildernessquality lands” (SUWA, 2012(a)). Today SUWA works toward achieving “the preservation of the outstanding wilderness at the heart of the Colorado Plateau, and the management of these lands in their natural state for the benefit of all Americans” (SUWA, 2012(b)). SUWA’s efforts focus on both the local and national level to preserve wilderness through the National Park and National Wilderness Preservation Systems or by other means if available (Better Business Bureau, 2012). SUWA has adopted the strategy of “litigate-first” in achieving its goals. In our analysis, we find the organization’s litigious actions often have negative economic impacts on local communities.

SUWA is a locally focused group that centers its efforts on the preservation of red rock wilderness areas found in Southern Utah, as well as smaller areas in Northern Arizona, Western Colorado, and Eastern Nevada. Due to the relatively small size of the organization, SUWA usually accompanies larger environmental groups such as the Sierra Club in lawsuits. One example of this is their recent cooperation with other environmental groups as part of the Greater Canyonlands Coalition–which also includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Association–in a formal request to the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to restrict ORV routes and usage in the areas surrounding Canyonlands National Park (SUWA, 2012(e)).

The administrative body of SUWA is highly connected with larger environmental groups. Darrell Knuffke, who serves as chair of SUWA’s Board of Directors, is also a leading member of the Wilderness Society. Knuffke served as a regional director of the Wilderness Society from 1985 to 1995, and vice president for regional conservation from 1995 to 2000 (Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, n.d.). Additionally, Knuffke was the interim policy director at Friends of Boundary Waters Wilderness (FBWW) from 2006-2007 and has been a member of the board of FBWW since 2000 (Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, n.d.).

SUWA is listed as a 501(c)(3) under the current tax code, which requires the organization to post their financial records and be operated for specific purposes including charitable, religious, educational, or other causes. As such SUWA has charged itself with “maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works” (IRS, 2012). In 2010, SUWA had a total income of $2,845,792 and expenses totaling $1,977,589, leaving a surplus of $868,203 (Better Business Bureau, 2012). The Better Business Bureau’s examination of SUWA shows that it does not meet the BBB’s Standard for Charity Accountability, as the chair of the board is directly compensated. In addition, another board member is “… indirectly compensated as the spouse of a paid staff member” (Better Business Bureau, 2012).

Content Anaylsys

To better understand how SUWA conducts their campaign against oil and gas drilling, OHV use, and roads we performed a content analysis of news reports from the environmental news clearinghouse Greenwire from December 2010 to October of 2012. We classified their actions as Threats to Sue, Lawsuits, Voice (lobbying, news conferences, organized demonstrations), and Petition (a formal petition to a government agency). During this time SUWA was involved in three states: Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. We found that SUWA engages in two types of activities, Lawsuits, or Voice, or speaking for or against a certain policy. The Action Tables we complied during our content analysis are available in the Appendix. Table 1 below has the summary statistics from the 116 observations of SUWA’s campaign found in Greenwire during our time period.


Variable Observations Mean Standard Deviations
Threat to Sue 1,228 2.20% 0.1467
Lawsuit 1,228 7.65% 0.266
Voice 1,228 5.70% 0.2319
Petition 1,228 2.04% 0.1413
CBD Involved 1,228 14.33% 0.3505
Endagered 1,228 9.45% 0.2926
Energy 1,228 7.08% 0.2567
Water 1,228 2.69% 0.1618

Unlike other similar groups (see our paper on the Center for Biological Diversity) SUWA did not engage in any Threats to Sue during this time or Petitions to government agencies. We find that SUWA was active in almost 19% of counties across the eleven states mentioned above. On average 20% of their activities are related to voicing their opinions on different issues, while 10% of their activities on average are lawsuits.


SUWA’s advocacy for preserving wilderness has been focused largely on preventing creation or expansion of resource extraction in wilderness areas. In 2009, for example, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided to cancel seventy-seven oil and gas leases sold at auction during the final month of the Bush Administration (Loomis, 2012). In response to this, Uintah and Duchesne Counties joined with Impact Energy Resources, Peak Royalty Holdings, and Questar Exploration and Production in a lawsuit designed to block the decision by the Secretary. SUWA, while not an official party in the case, intervened through an attorney in favor of rejecting the leases (Loomis, 2012).

In general, SUWA’s lawsuits are directed at government agencies, particularly the BLM. One example is the case of SUWA v. Norton, which directly challenged the management of wilderness areas by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In this suit, SUWA alleged that the BLM “violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act . . . and the National Environmental Policy Act . . . by not properly managing off-road vehicle and/or off-highway vehicle (collectively, ORV) use on federal lands that had been classified by the BLM as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) or as having ‘wilderness qualities’ ” (SUWA v. Norton, 2002). SUWA is involved in many such cases, suing government agencies including the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection agency, the BLM, local, state, and national governments for their alleged failure to protect natural landscapes.

SUWA’s voice is heard not only through participation in the litigation process, but also through participation in organized efforts in support of or opposition to policies that deal directly with wilderness. SUWA’s opposition to one of the more controversial aspects of environmental law in Utah, the proposed plan of Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert that would shift federally owned lands in Utah to state control and management, is just one example. In March 2012, Governor Gary Herbert signed the Transfer of Public Lands Act demanding the transfer of over thirty million acres of federal land to state control (SUWA, 2012(c)). SUWA opposed this measure from the beginning, arguing that such action would place these areas at greater risk of damage and degradation. SUWA’s concerns surrounding this measure stem from what they see as the inability of the state government to properly manage these lands. SUWA asserts that “the federal government currently spends between $200 and $300 million per year managing public lands in Utah” (emphasis from SUWA; SUWA, 2012(c)). SUWA maintains that if these federal lands were to be transferred to state ownership “Utah taxpayers would be stuck with the cost of managing them” (SUWA, 2012(c)). While this is patently true, it is unclear whether state administration of lands would be less effective than federal administration. In reality, taxpayers are already stuck with the cost of managing lands, as federal income tax supports the administration of public lands.

SUWA also engages in federal lobbying activities. Currently, the organization is campaigning to secure the protection of the area collectively referred to as Greater Canyonlands. SUWA has been lobbying for President Obama and his administration to bar ORV use on 1,050 miles on trails through roughly “1.4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) land surrounding Canyonlands National Park” (SUWA, 2012(e)). This attempt at a grassroots movement in favor of the protection of Greater Canyonlands area is largely being conducted through social media, including Twitter and Facebook (SUWA, 2012(g)). Despite these efforts to pressure the President into the protection of Greater Canyonlands, the Administration has not deemed it prudent to further protect this area. Instead the Administration has opted to maintain management plans written by the Bush Administration, claiming these plans already provide adequate protection for the areas in question (SUWA, 2012(e)). Plans currently being enforced specifically allow for “… proposed uranium and tar sand mining, and oil and gas development” (SUWA, 2012(e)). The Administration refused, in August of 2011, “… to host a public discussion on protecting the Greater Canyonlands region” (SUWA, 2012(e)).

SUWA continues to protest any such attempts to allow for multiple use of public lands in Southern Utah, arguing that areas like Greater Canyonlands are of immeasurable value. Although SUWA’s actions may negatively impact local economies by discouraging or even permanently preventing development, the organization disregards such costs preferring to focus instead on emotionally charged arguments that often value the preservation of wilderness above human prosperity and wellbeing.

In what follows, we present set of case studies highlighting the types of development projects opposed by SUWA and illustrating how the organization uses obstructionist legal tactics used to discourage multiple use management of public lands. We show that SUWA’s actions come at a cost, be it discouraging companies from developing in certain areas, or simply delaying projects that citizens and elected officials favor. When development is discouraged, jobs and revenues that might otherwise be infused into local economies are sent elsewhere. SUWA tends to either marginalize or completely ignore such costs, instead focusing solely on their own emotional, ecological, or ideological goals of preserving wilderness, no matter the cost.