Robert Bennett: Resolving Utah's wilderness conflict

Published: Monday, June 24 2013 12:55 p.m. MDT

Mike Vanderhoof crosses the plains while riding from the Sid's Mountain Wilderness Study Area back to camp in the San Rafael Swell Friday, April 1, 2011, in the San Rafael Swell in Central Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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Of all the issues I dealt with as a senator, none aroused more passionate contention among those Utahns who were affected by it than the question of wilderness. How much of it should we have, where should it be and who should decide? For decades, efforts made to resolve these questions only led to frustration and more division. Then, five years ago, Congress passed the Washington County Land Use bill, the culmination of a bipartisan effort that began with Gov. Olene Walker and took more than five years to complete.

When President Barack Obama signed it, it was hailed as a model for future legislation on the subject, an example of how the ideological logjam on wilderness could be broken up. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it would be the blueprint for all future wilderness bills supported by the Obama administration. How has it worked out?

As far as bringing certainty to Washington County is concerned, very well. Local leaders there have finally been able to make their plans for dealing with the future growth of "Utah's Dixie" without having to worry about wilderness anymore. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the leading national proponent of the controversial "Red Rock" Bill to create over 9 million acres of wilderness in Utah, has demonstrated his acceptance of its provisions by leaving Washington County out of the current version of his bill. In one county in the state, at least, "wilderness" is no longer a fighting word.

Things have gone more slowly with respect to the bill's becoming a template for other wilderness bills. There have been wilderness proposals for other states that are patterned on the Washington County bill and a number of Utah's counties have tried to replicate it in their own jurisdictions, but nothing final has passed. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is trying to change that.

As chairman of the relevant subcommittee in the House of Representatives, he is the leading force behind the Utah Public Lands Initiative, an effort to resolve the issue in as many places as possible. During the past year, he and members of his staff have held over 200 meetings, sent letters to over 75 stakeholder groups, visited five different counties and heard from diverse groups of interested parties. As was the case with the Washington County Bill, Rep. Bishop is doing his best to make this a collaborative process.

Those with seats at his table include energy interests, Native American tribes, conservationists, outfitters, motorized recreators, business owners and sportsmen. He has also worked with all of the appropriate government interests — county commissioners, the governor, members of Congress, federal land managers and SITLA, the state agency that owns some of the land involved. He is supported by all members of the Utah delegation, particularly Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in whose district most of the relevant study areas lie.

I'm impressed by the seriousness of the effort because I know from my own experience how much time and patience is required in order to get all of these diverse interests to agree on what is an emotionally charged issue. I am optimistic that agreement will come because there is one thing they all want, which the Washington County Bill delivered — certainty regarding the future. I recognize that there are some voices that relish the battle and want it to continue, but most Utahns are tired of this decades old fight and want it resolved.

The state and all of its residents will be well served if it is, and I congratulate Rep. Bishop and the rest of the delegation for their determination to see that it will be.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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