A House subcommittee gave quick approval Thursday to a new proposal that could end decades-long Utah wilderness fights, but a veto looms and environmentalists are blasting the plan.
In other words, the new "Emery County plan" is following the script of earlier wilderness bills that Republicans pushed part way through the Congress they control but couldn't, in the end, overcome environmental, Democratic and presidential opposition.Instead of addressing how much wilderness should be protected in all of Utah, the bill developed by Emery County commissioners looks only at the San Rafael Swell. It calls for a mix of some wilderness and other less restrictive protections and the creation of national conservation and heritage areas to draw tourists.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, cleared the first and easiest step on its path through Congress on a party-line voice vote in the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.
Approval came less than two weeks after a hearing on it and a month after its introduction. Democrats complain Republicans are trying to ram it through quickly while ignoring their concerns that it protects too little wilderness.
For example, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., complained that environmental groups and the administration had promised to work with Republicans to improve the plan but were not given much time.
"Here we are at mark-up less than 10 days later. If we really want their input, I think we allow a little bit more time. I really can't understand why we are moving this bill so quickly," Hinchey said.
But Hansen said Bureau of Land Management Director Pat Shea withdrew an earlier administration promise to help improve the bill. He reported that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would recommend a veto if it passes.
Also, Hansen said environmental groups have repeatedly failed to enter serious discussions on the bill, although they deny that. He and others felt no need to continue to wait but made some changes that such groups said they wanted during the recent hearings.
Del. Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, the ranking Democrat on the panel, warned that a consensus of concerned parties will be needed for passage into law "and that consensus does not exist."
Republicans voted down four amendments proposed by Hinchey. The New York Democrat has long pushed another bill that would protect 5.7 million acres of Utah as wilderness, or a tenth of the state. His proposal would increase by six times the amount of wilderness proposed in the Emery County plan.
Republicans adopted a significant amendment by Hansen to the Emery plan. The revisions would vastly decrease the amount of suggested wilderness.
The original bill called for protecting 130,718 acres of wilderness within a new national conservation area in the San Rafael Swell and another 276,750 outside of that area in other parts of the state. The outside acreage was removed Thursday.
"We decided to take out all the areas not within the San Rafael Swell itself, so this bill will focus just on that," said Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson. "It reduces the questions we were having on other areas, like the Book Cliffs."
Hansen's amendment removed language that would have allowed wilderness areas to have communications towers and military overflights. It also added revised maps so that controversial paths that crisscross federal lands would not be called "roads" but instead "non-motorized trails."
The administration and Democrats worried that calling them roads could inadvertently result in a long-running battle with the Clinton administration about which of them are legal roads and which should be returned to nature.
The bill now goes to the full House Resources Committee for consideration.