A bill reserving 355,000 acres of the San Rafael Swell in east central Utah for wilderness and other uses flew through a U.S. House committee Wednesday, but its future is clouded by opposition from environmental groups, some Democrats and even Utah's own GOP Rep. Merrill Cook.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, sponsors the measure, which he calls the San Rafael Swell National Heritage and Conservation Act.Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson said the bipartisan effort is being well-received in Congress. And Cannon said he hopes he can get the whole House to consider it this summer or fall. A companion bill is moving through the U.S. Senate sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt threatens a presidential veto, and it's unclear if GOP House leaders will want to take up a bill that faces such opposition with only about 30 working days left before Congress scatters home for No-vem-ber elections.
And it doesn't help that Cook, R-Utah, opposes Cannon's measure.
Cannon says the extensive work put into the bill by local county officials is a great strength.
But the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says its bad environmental law and would set a precedent to piecemeal Utah's wilderness designation - an approach much to be avoided.
"It doesn't protect enough wilderness," says SUWA's Cindy Sho-gan. And BLM-designated wilderness study lands within the swell would lose that designation, she adds.
Cannon said he doesn't understand the opposition because the solution makes sense, classifying lands according to real-world uses, current and future.
The bill designates 140,456 acres as pure wilderness; 120,695 acres would become semi-primitive areas, allowing limited motorized and overflight access; 27,670 acres would become "critical environmental concerns," open to more use; and 66,071 acres would be designed lands for Desert Bighorn Sheep herds.
The congressman said SUWA and others want the sheep areas to be wilderness. "But the herds would die out" if wildlife managers couldn't reach them or manage them with motorized vehicles and helicopters, he said.
Cook, who faces a tough re-election fight this year in Salt Lake County's 2nd Congressional District, an area that historically favors some wilderness designations, said he's concerned about the "outdated science" used to come up with the different classifications of lands in the bill.
"And (Cook) just believes there should be more wilderness (designation lands) in that area," said his spokeswoman, Marnie Funk.
Funk said attempts in the bill to protect just the bighorn sheep herds "is a species-by-species approach as opposed to a whole bio-system approach. Modern science gives us better ways to protect the environment."
Rumors of some hot words over the bill between Cannon and Cook are incorrect, Funk says. "The offices are working well together. The congressmen have been on the phone talking to each other about the bill several times in the past several days."
"Look, we're protecting the pure wilderness in the area," Cannon said. "And we're protecting the bighorn sheep herds that would die out if we don't manage them with helicopters and vehicles. We've made changes in how (humans) can operate in a wilderness area to protect and manage the herds. This bill is actually better for wildlife" than pure wilderness designation, he said.