Environmentalists and the Clinton administration fired torpedoes Thursday at legislation billed as a compromise that might finally end long-running Utah wilderness wars.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Pat Shea said the bill proposing a new hybrid protection plan for the San Rafael Swell would dismantle traditional wilderness laws."So we would have to recommend a veto," he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"It will not protect wilderness," added Mike Matz, representing the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.
"It designates wilderness but at the same time creates management problems with inconsistent uses inside that wilderness," he said, such as allowing some motorized use, structures and roads - and excluding some worthy wild areas where mining is proposed from protection.
Utah officials disputed that assessment.
"How can this be an anti-wilderness bill when it includes most of the land recommended for wilderness designation by the BLM in their 10-year study?" said Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson, who helped develop the plan.
The bill would use several different designations - not just wilderness - to preserve some areas of San Rafael, and allow limited development or grazing in other parts.
It would set aside, for example, 140,000 acres of traditional wilderness areas; 74,000 acres for a Bighorn Sheep Management Area; and 120,000 acres of a semi-primitive, non-motorized-access area. It would also create a national heritage and conservation area.
"In its size and scope and in the amount of attention it will receive, it is easily the equivalent of creating a new national park. But it is very different from a national park," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, the House sponsor of the bill.
"Traditionally a national park has a single purpose, a single-use designation. But the San Rafael Swell Heritage and Conservation Area is multi-dimensional. It goes beyond the primary intent of protecting natural landscapes, and includes many other aspects, such as local history, culture and economics," he said.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, Senate sponsor of the bill, said the proposal was developed by local groups looking at the land and then figuring what was best for it. He said it offers a compromise to stalemated wilderness battles.
"Without the spirit of compromise that led to this bill we are never going to be able to resolve this (wilderness) issue," Bennett said.
But Shea said scrutiny of the bill shows it to be "a very ingenious way of coming up with a bit different definition of wilderness" - which he and the administration worry could undermine protection of all wilderness areas by allowing some roads, motorized access and structures.
An example of his concerns is designating Sids Mountain not as wilderness but as an area to "be intensively managed for the production of desert bighorn sheep.
"The bill permits numerous activities that would impact Sids Mountain's wilderness values - such as aircraft landings, allowing use of motorized vehicles . . . and permitting the construction of numerous facilities," he said. "Over time, the result of this approach would be the loss of wilderness values."
Matz also complained that 125,000 acres of current wilderness study areas would not be protected as pure wilderness - which environmentalists prefer.
Bennett said passage of the bill is now unlikely with such opposition and coming so late in a crowded legislative session. But he urged the Senate committee to pass it anyway to help it have a head start in next year's session.