Commentary: Senate takes a big, bipartisan step toward protecting public lands

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rugged country of jumbled sandstone caprock in the Molen Reef area of the San Rafael Swell.

With the U.S. Senate’s passage Wednesday of a package of bills that includes the Emery County Public Land Management Act, Utah draws closer to a historic first: a landscape-scale wilderness bill for treasured public lands managed by the BLM, including portions of Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons and the San Rafael Swell.

When the bill passes the House of Representatives and receives President Trump’s signature, it will be good news for Utah’s canyon country. But it didn’t start out that way.

When first introduced by members of Utah’s congressional delegation, the legislation protected too little wilderness; included unprecedented provisions that promoted off-road vehicle use; and sought to undermine a hard-won agreement requiring a new travel plan for the region.

The bill appeared doomed to failure, just like the six prior bills introduced by the Utah delegation for the San Rafael Swell over the past twenty five years. These previous bills all refused to acknowledge that decisions regarding public lands in Utah belong to all Americans, and not just to a handful of local politicians.

But this time was different. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has championed America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act for 20 years, was instrumental in brokering the final agreement with Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., challenged an earlier, flawed version of the bill. And the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, along with the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, held firm for a bill that was worthy of the landscape it purported to protect, even as others were ready to sell the San Rafael Swell short.

The result is legislation that will designate 663,000 acres of Utah’s most spectacular lands as wilderness, and will protect in total nearly 900,000 acres of wild lands from future mineral development, energy leasing, and the construction of off-road vehicle trails.

SUWA has never judged the importance of a wilderness bill by sheer acreage, however. More important than dry numbers is the fact that cherished landscapes like Muddy Creek will remain a source of solitude and inspiration for generations to come.

Utahns can thank Hatch and Rep. John Curtis and their staffs for seeing the bill through, and for keeping the lines of communication open. With our support, Hatch and Curtis have succeeded on an unprecedented scale, to the benefit of all Utahns.

To be sure, this bill was a compromise, and reaching an agreement required tough choices by all. The bill was unfortunately limited to lands within Emery County, meaning only the western half of Labyrinth Canyon gained wilderness protection. The bill did nothing to address Gov. Gary Herbert’s more than 20 lawsuits against the federal government, which aim to seize public lands and which continue to threaten the very places this bill conserves. And it leaves out some lands deserving of protection, for which SUWA will continue to advocate as part of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.

Despite these shortcomings, the bill is a huge step forward for Utah’s redrock. At a time when our nation is deeply divided, this legislation brought together differing viewpoints for a result that is good for wilderness, good for Utah, and good for the United States.

We’re excited to see this bill cross the finish line in the House of Representatives next. When President Trump signs it, it will become the most significant bill for Utah’s redrock wilderness in 25 years. It’s a good start — a bill worthy, at last, of the landscape it seeks to protect.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Groene, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, speaks to conservation community groups gathered at the Utah Capitol rotunda.

Scott Groene, Moab, is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

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