WASHINGTON After changes to pacify earlier widespread opposition, the House Resources Committee endorsed Wednesday a Utah wilderness bill but one where creating new wilderness takes a back seat to far bigger goals.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is pushing the bill mostly to block a proposed nuclear waste repository on the Goshute Reservation in Skull Valley, an action he says in turn would help protect Hill Air Force Base in upcoming base closure fights.
Wilderness that the bill would create would block a railroad needed for the waste repository sought by the Goshutes. "It would make it impossible to have the repository there," Bishop said.
He said that, in turn, would help to protect the vast Utah Test and Training Range operated by Hill.
"The entrance and egress (for jets) for that range is right there. The Air Force will not fly over that stuff," Bishop said. "They have said it tends to limit their ability to use the range."
Also, the bill would clearly allow military overflights in new wilderness areas, and maintenance of UTTR facilities and equipment. Bishop said lawsuits about other wilderness areas near other military ranges have limited their use and his bill would prevent that and make Hill stronger as base closure fights begin.
Still, the bill would be the first-ever Utah-only legislation to create wilderness on U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas, even though wilderness battles have raged for decades. "If we can enact this legislation, it would be good for Utah wilderness," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Such comments are far different from last year, when SUWA and a broad range of other groups testified against the bill.
Environmental groups then said it would create too little wilderness; the Interior Department said it may create too much; the Goshute tribe said it violates treaties; the Department of Indian Affairs said it would cut off all chances for Goshute economic development; and the Air Force said it wouldn't allow enough management flexibility.
Bishop said changes he negotiated finally brought support of all groups except the Goshute Tribe, which still opposes it.
He said wilderness boundaries were redrawn to include areas agreed upon by all major stakeholders. They include the Deep Creek, Fish Springs, Swasey Mountain, Howell Peak, Notch Peak, King Top, Wah Wah Mountain and Conger Mountain units.
It removes and releases from future wilderness consideration the Brown Spring area, to permit access to maintain the spring and water supply systems to it.
Bishop added some provisions designed to help the Goshutes, too.
One calls for the Interior Department to identify 640 acres of federal land it could give to the tribe near the I-80 freeway, where the tribe could build gas stations, restaurants or other businesses.
"Where they are right now (in the middle of remote Skull Valley) really does not give them a whole lot of opportunity for any development," Bishop said. "This will be one of the ways you can really help them out."
Another move redesigned boundaries to allow a railroad that could help spur economic development for the tribe just not one that would carry nuclear waste.Comment on this story
"The original bill would have stopped any kind of railroad from going down there. But there are some development efforts that could use a railroad, and also Dugway (Proving Ground) could, too," Bishop said.
So boundaries were redrawn so a railroad could reach the Goshute Reservation but would go over state-owned land adjacent to wilderness areas. "That would make the state have to agree to what could travel over that rail spur," he said.The bill now goes to the full House. Bishop said he hopes for action this year, to help protect Hill before base closure proposals are made next year.