The public lands protected under U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett's Washington County lands bill could end up as the senator's greatest legacy. But the successful negotiation and compromise that led to a sensible plan for fragile lands in Southern Utah should not end with Bennett's ouster from the Republican ticket this year.
Now is the time to extend the model for wilderness designation created by the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act to other Utah lands valuable for their scenery, wildlife habitat, archaeology and history. We fervently hope Bennett continues to work on similar legislation for San Juan County, and will get the ball rolling in other counties, such as Emery and even Kane.
In San Juan County, local officials recognize that Congress is poised to debate the decades-old Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would provide the highest level of federal protection for millions of acres of public land. It has been languishing in Congress, going nowhere for 20 years, but last year it finally got its first congressional hearing, in the House Natural Resources subcommittee.
A wilderness plan formulated with local input would be much preferred by county commissioners over one created in Washington, D.C. And environmental groups, most notably the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, say they are ready to discuss a compromise that would protect the roadless areas near Canyonlands National Park and other San Juan sites.
Still, considering the Washington County lands bill, sponsored by both Bennett and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, was in the works for five years before finally passing on the coattails of broader national land-protection legislation, it would be wildly optimistic to hope a similar bill for San Juan County could be passed before Bennett leaves office next January.
There is much negotiation still remaining to be done. Local San Juan officials want to limit wilderness designation to only those lands already labeled as wilderness study areas by the Bureau of Land Management. SUWA also wants protection for Dark Canyon and Cedar Mesa along with lands near Glen Canyon and Hovenweep National Monument.
There is some hope, however, that a proposal could be written in the coming seven months and perhaps Sen. Orrin Hatch could pick up the ball and run it home. Hatch and his staff are working with Piute County officials on a similar plan.
It would be a shame if progress made on all sides over so many years were wasted.