93 sign House letter urging ban on off-highway vehicles in Utah wilderness
WASHINGTON - A band of House members sent a letter Tuesday urging the federal government to block off-highway vehicle use in some of Utah's most remote lands, citing the cultural and archaeological treasures that might be damaged.
One out of every five members of the House of Representatives signed the letter sent to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne - but none of them represents Utah.
"I don't presume to set transportation policy for Chicago or New York," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. "So I would appreciate my colleagues - none of whom are from Utah - not trying to protect Utah from Utahns."
The letter, backed by a number of environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is just the latest salvo in the fight over new federal land-use plans nationwide.
The Bureau of Land Management has released drafts of five travel-management plans covering millions of acres of wilderness area in Utah. One other plan is in the works.
The BLM hopes to finalize these plans by next year, which would designate which trails, roads or areas are open for motorized travel.
Much of the land under debate falls into Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson's district.
He did not sign the letter, but that does not mean he is not worried about OHVs on public lands, said Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend.
She said he has talked with BLM officials.
"He is confident that they are already aware of his views on this topic," Heyrend said. "The damage to public lands from inappropriate OHV use is pretty widespread."
But Matheson is not ready to go as far as the congressional critics who signed the letter.
They want to ban OHV use in these areas "to protect Utah's exceptional archaeological and wilderness resources by immediately protecting wilderness character areas from off-road vehicle use."
And they worry that what happens in Utah could become the model for what happens elsewhere.
The letter comes from New York Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey and Illinois GOP Reps. Timothy Johnson and Mark Kirk. All but four of the 93 signatories are Democrats, 27 come from Western states, and 14 of them are on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over the BLM.
Cannon and Utah GOP Rep. Rob Bishop are also members of that committee, but they were not about to sign the letter.
Cannon says the BLM plan has looked into the environmental effect of OHVs in these remote and rarely used areas. He said it should be up to Utahns, through the open comment period, to determine if the plan is adequate.
But those who sign the letter don't look at this as a state issue.
"It is a national treasure, not just a Utah treasure," said Phil Bloomer, spokesman for Johnson. "It is not a provincial issue."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance wants to see BLM officials document the cultural value of these remote lands before allowing OHVs on trails and canyon bottoms.
"What we have seen from the draft plans is that they really haven't gone out in the field," said SUWA member Justin Allegro. "They are designating basically anything on any map anywhere."
The BLM spent six years on the plan and has "done a pretty thorough job," said Ralph Okerlund, Sevier County Commission chairman.
He said limiting OHV use to these areas is an "elitist policy" that would block those who are not fit enough to access remote and beautiful Utah desert lands.
Utah BLM officials received the letter but would not comment until they responded directly to Congress.