Utah Republican congressmen are hopping mad that Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, has high-powered friends pressuring the administration to tie up 2 million more acres in the state as unofficial wilderness.
Reps. Jim Hansen and Howard Nielson, both R-Utah, called a press conference Thursday to say if Owens is successful, it would create an "economic disaster" in much of southern Utah - which is in their districts and not Owens' Salt Lake County district.But Owens says he is just trying to protect the land - which could be officially designated wilderness under a bill he recently introduced - from activities that could damage its pristine value while Congress debates the issue.
"For example, a big Jeep group went out intentionally to one of the areas a few weeks ago to try to ensure it couldn't become wilderness," he said. Wilderness areas are not supposed to show any signs of man, such as vehicle trails and ruts.
This latest skirmish in the battle over how much wilderness to establish on U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas in Utah erupted when Republicans were given a copy of a letter written by high-powered friends of Owens on the House Interior Committee to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr.
Interior Committee Chairman Morris Udall, D-Ariz., and four powerful Interior subcommittee chairmen told Lujan they feel it is "imperative" to protect all 5.1 million acres of BLM land that Owens feels should be designated as wilderness in Utah.
Currently, only 3.2 million acres have been designated as "wilderness study areas," meaning they are treated as if they are official wilderness until Congress decides exactly how much of the land should receive permanent wilderness designation.
Hansen has proposed that only 1.4 million acres become permanent wilderness, and the BLM is expected to recommend 2.04 million acres.
Hansen, who like Owens is on the Interior Committee, said he is concerned about the letter because "Secretary Lujan has to work part and parcel with these people. If it just had a couple of freshmen from New Jersey on it, I don't think we would be very concerned."
Nielson said the 2 million extra acres that Owens wants protected would devastate southern Utah's economy.
Nielson claimed many of the 2 million extra acres don't qualify for wilderness designation because they are honeycombed with roads and other signs of man. Owens says they are pristine and should be considered, but were dropped from BLM studies for little or no reason.
Hansen said only national environmental groups are behind Owens' proposal, while he claims state environmental groups more closely support his.