Two Eastern lawmakers on Thursday reintroduced legislation that would put one-sixth of all Utah land into formal wilderness areas — marking the 20th year that environmentalists have pushed similar bills, so far without much success.
With more Democrats in Congress, "I think we have a better shot at passing this important bill now than we've had since (the late) Congressman Wayne Owens (D-Utah) first introduced it 20 years ago," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who introduced it in the House with 105 cosponsors.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., reintroduced it in the Senate with 15 cosponsors.
Hinchey, who has pushed Utah wilderness bills since 1994, said, "With a Congress that is more deeply committed to conservation efforts and a president who understands the importance of protecting our country's most precious land, I am very hopeful that we can move this important piece of legislation forward."
The Red Rock Wilderness bill would put 9.4 million acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management parcels in Utah — amounting to about a sixth of all land in the state — into wilderness areas, preventing commercial development and banning motorized vehicles, road building and oil and gas drilling.
The original bill introduced by Owens in 1989 called for only 5.1 million acres of wilderness, and much of what he originally sought was later included in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Most other members of Utah's congressional delegation have fought such proposals through the years, saying it creates too much wilderness, would hurt local economies, and that many of the lands proposed for protection already have roads or other development within them.
But some bits and pieces of wilderness have been protected over time, including about 250,000 acres in Washington County that were protected just this week as part of a package of public-lands bills signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Hinchey said the bill "would protect a national treasure by ensuring that a portion of Utah's spectacular red-rock country remains in its current wilderness (condition) for this and all future generations of Americans to enjoy and cherish."
Durbin said, "I believe it is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that these fragile lands of magnificent beauty, which already belong to the public, do not fall victim to oil, gas and mining interests, increased commercial development and proposals to construct roads, utility lines and dams."
The bill is endorsed by environmental groups that include the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"With increasing populations around the West, it really is important that we act to preserve the remaining special places where people can enjoy the solitude and splendor of wilderness," said Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA, and a former congressional aide to Owens.
Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for NRDC, said, "We must protect these pristine areas from the irreparable harm of drilling. By designating these sensitive lands as wilderness, Congress can help restore balance to how we meet our energy needs, which does not require destroying our last remaining wild places."
Suzanne Jones of the Wilderness Society said, "Utah's red-rock country is a fragile place where even the slightest damage can have dramatic impacts."
Wayne Hoskisson, chairman of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said, "At a time of economic uncertainty, wilderness designation allows Americans and Utahns the comfort of knowing that special places will remain intact, no matter what."