The Cedar Mountain wilderness language was approved by leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees after a weeks-long push by Utah members of Congress who were aided by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., environmental groups and Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.
The creation of the 100,000-acre wilderness area would prevent the preferred route for a rail line to the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, where a group of electric utilities known as Private Fuel Storage has won a license to store 44,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants until a permanent home is built in Yucca Mountain, Nev.
"It does not take all their potential routes away . . . but it has slowed down the process and made that more difficult to accomplish," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "We have put a big nail in the coffin, but it's not dead yet and we must dedicate ourselves to working forward to make sure this is killed once and forever."
Backers of the wilderness also say it assures the Air Force will be able to continue to use the Utah Test and Training Range. There was concern that jets would not be able to fly over the waste site to the range, limiting its usefulness.
"This is a significant impediment for Private Fuel Storage's plan to store spent nuclear fuel in Skull Valley and Governor Huntsman is very happy about it," said Mike Lee, counsel to the governor.
PFS has said the wilderness area would not block construction of the site, but would only force the consortium to rely on the riskier option of trucking the waste on the two-lane Skull Valley highway.
"We do have another transportation option. It is not our preferred option, but nevertheless, we can carry spent fuel safely on Skull Valley Road if that's the way the Utah delegation insists it be done," said Sue Martin, PFS spokeswoman. "If we do it that way, it will be done safely."
But changing plans could create headaches for PFS. Bishop said the alternate routes are not "as efficient, effective or easy as the rail spur that was proposed."
"Those roads would be immensely expensive and difficult to do," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "It would be very expensive and there would be lots of litigation if they want to use that road."
The wilderness language was adopted as part of a broader Defense Department policy bill after the leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees wrapped up differences in the final version of the bill.
Both the House and Senate must give final approval to the bill and it must be signed by the president, but those actions almost certain to happen.
The wilderness legislation appeared to be dead as recently as Thursday.
Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a member of the Senate group negotiating the bill, was steadfastly opposed to it, in part because of ill feelings from Hatch and Sen. Bob Bennett's votes in 2002 supporting construction of Yucca Mountain.
But Hatch, Bishop and Ensign met Thursday in Hatch's office in the Capitol and came to an agreement on the provision. Neither Hatch nor Bishop would say what made Ensign change his mind.
Ensign's spokesman, Jack Finn, said that Ensign "came away convinced that, in the Utah delegation, Nevada has an ally in exploring viable alternatives to the nuclear waste storage issue."
The final language included in the defense bill is actually a somewhat watered-down compromise Bishop's original bill that passed the House. It creates a wilderness area but, unlike the original version, would not impose other restrictions on the use of the federal land surrounding the reservation.
Also, it would leave in place a provision requiring the Air Force to report on how nuclear waste storage might impede the military's use of the Utah Test and Training Range, adjacent to the reservation, before the Bureau of Land Management can approve a rail line to the reservation.
With the wilderness in place, Bishop's original language would have lifted the Air Force's obligation. That would have given the BLM the ability to change its management plan for the area, something it can't currently do.
The inclusion of the Cedar Mountain language marks the culmination of a bid five years ago by Rep. Jim Hansen, who has since retired, to slip wilderness language into the bill.
The Hansen version was opposed by environmental groups, who said it was watered down and would not protect the land, and was blocked by Democrats.
Since then, the Utah members have tried several times to pass Cedar Mountain wilderness legislation as part of the PFS fight. This time, after months of negotiation, Bishop had the backing of environmental groups, who fought for the measure. If it wins final approval as expected, the Cedar Mountain area would be the first wilderness created in Utah since 1984.
"This legislation accomplishes something that's never been done before in Utah - unanimous agreement on a Utah wilderness proposal that truly protects Utah's deserving wilderness," Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a statement. "This kind of wilderness agreement was made possible by the years of work that Utah wilderness activists have poured into protecting Utah's redrock country and deserts."