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Red Rock Wilderness Act is again under scrutiny in Congress

Measure reserves 9.5 million Utah acres from development

Published: Saturday, April 23 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — With the predictability of spring cherry blossoms in the nation's capital, Utah wilderness advocates have once again reintroduced America's Red Rock Wilderness Act — a proposal to set aside from development 9.5 million acres of Utah's backcountry.

And just as certainly, the bill, introduced Thursday evening by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., will never see the light of day in the House or the Senate.

The entire Utah delegation opposes the bill, and, historically, Congress never passes wilderness legislation over the objection of the home-state delegation.

"But our support in Congress is strong and growing, and (the bill), indeed, sends a message that protecting wild Utah is a national issue," said Pete Downing with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Despite 152 House sponsors and 14 Senate sponsors, Downing has no illusions the Utah delegation will suddenly embrace 9.5 acres of wilderness. But the delegation has expressed a willingness to address wilderness in two key areas of the state, one in the Cedar Mountains in Tooele County and the other near St. George in the Mojave Desert.

Downing said America's Red Rock Wilderness Act will be the standard against which those proposals are measured. For example, the Cedar Mountain proposal, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, matches up very closely with what the Utah Wilderness Coalition has recommended for that same area, which is why wilderness advocates support Bishop's bill.

And more than anything, the bill is a symbolic opposition to the Bush administration's push to open up more and more wild lands to oil and gas development.

On Thursday, the House passed an energy bill that furthers that agenda and even includes a provision that development projects on less than five acres are exempt from federal environmental laws.

"America's Red Rock Wilderness Act is more important than ever," Downing said.

The 9.5 million acres that would be protected were identified by a small army of citizen volunteers who have spent years combing through Utah's backcountry to document areas that qualify as wilderness — areas they say were ignored or inadequately documented during formal wilderness inventories by the Bureau of Land Management.

The so-called "citizens inventory" has since become a model for wilderness initiatives in other states.

The bill has been introduced in Congress every session since 1989 when the late Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, a fierce wilderness advocate, was its primary sponsor. Hinchey took up sponsorship in 1993, and Durbin became the Senate sponsor in 1997.

"So much of our nation's open space has been developed, which is why it is so important that we preserve the precious few acres of wilderness we have," Hinchey said. "This bill would ensure that Utah's red rock country is maintained in its untainted, natural form — no buildings, no roads, no vehicles, no mines, just pure open space for all Americans to enjoy forever."


E-mail: spang@desnews.com

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