Red Rock hearing: Agreement on wilderness, but not on how or how much

Published October 1, 2009 2:42 pm
Protecting treasures » Critics say bill goes too far, too fast
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Everyone who participated in a congressional hearing Thursday on a bill granting wilderness status to massive areas of Utah agreed the state has spectacular lands that deserve protection.

But passionate disagreements emerged over how to accomplish that.

Utah's five federal lawmakers appeared at the House subcommittee hearing to denounce the Red Rock bill, a statewide effort 20 years in the making that would protect 9.4 million acres from new roads, mining or off-road vehicles.

"There are beautiful pristine areas of Utah that need to be protected, but this bill goes far far beyond that," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the ranking Republican member of the public lands subcommittee. "This particular bill is a relic of the past. It has not been successful since the age of disco and it will not be successful now or in the future."

Utah's congressional delegation favors smaller county-level bills where local politicians, business leaders and environmentalists agree on what lands deserve the government's highest level of protection, such as the Washington County lands bill that designated more than 250,000 acres of new wilderness earlier this year.

But the supporters of the Red Rock act, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, say a statewide bill is needed to head off the ongoing damage done by off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

Robert Abbey, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, sided with Utah's lawmakers, saying he preferred "an approach that is more geographically focused" instead of a statewide wilderness bill.

In his written testimony, Abbey said: "Many of these lands are extraordinary, with unmatched wild land resources." Yet he also pointed out that the Red Rock proposal would "present serious challenges because of existing and conflicting uses," including active mining and biking trails and OHV trails.

The Red Rock act's sponsor, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said he was open to all alternative ways to protect these lands, which include the San Rafael Swell and Desolation Canyon, but he thought "a small piecemeal strategy" would take decades to accomplish.

Utah's lawmakers made it clear they didn't appreciate so many politicians from other states pushing a bill impacting lands only within Utah.

"To those colleagues who have put their names on this proposal I say: Thanks, but no thanks. I think as a congressional delegation we have proven we can handle the question of wilderness in Utah," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.

Hinchey said the bill was not only supported by people outside Utah. The Red Rock act has been created by Utah environmental activists and a recent poll commissioned by SUWA and conducted by Dan Jones, shows that 60 percent of the Utah public supports wilderness designation of 9 million acres or more.

He said the BLM has already found that 75 percent of the lands included in the Red Rock act have wilderness characteristics and the proposal impacts "just 40 percent of the public lands in Utah."

Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said he opposes the Red Rock act because it fails to take into consideration the views of those outside of the environmental community. He urged the bill's supporters to follow the "bipartisan road map for future legislative success," that is the Washington County lands bill.

Sen. Bob Bennett said this road map is poised to create consensus wilderness legislation in other areas of the state as working groups in counties such as Piute and San Juan are actively seeking a compromise.

And Bennett brushed aside complaints that these regional bills would take too long.

"They have been trying the statewide approach for 20 years and haven't produced a single acre of wilderness," he said.

Bishop also criticized the bill for not including detailed maps and for taking in areas that don't qualify for wilderness because they are currently being used for mining or recreation.

SUWA members and other supporters of the bill say they have a series of technical changes ready to go and they would like to discuss other ways to improve the bill. They are seeking serious discussion with Utah's lawmakers, saying they want to move forward on two tracks -- the Red Rock bill and the county-level proposals.

But Utah's lawmakers didn't seem interested in the slightest.

"A statewide wilderness bill," Bennett said, "simply will not fly in the United States Senate.

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