A resolution intended to influence Congress and the Bureau of Land Management against further wilderness designations became a blazing wrangle Thursday, with a southern Utah representative calling for Utahns to control federal land in the state.
The House approved HJR10 58-11 Thursday, a bill that urges Congress not to enact further wilderness designations in Utah "without the unanimous support of Utah's congressional delegation" and urges the BLM not to restrict access to its Utah land by saying "wilderness characteristics" exist there.
"I remember the joke many years ago, of how much money this (wilderness designation) was going to bring to our counties and our rural area, one of the poorest areas in the state of Utah," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said. "And the joke was the backpackers come in with a pair of dirty shorts and 20 bucks, they stay there a week and they don't change either one of them.
"I think that's true."
Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, sponsor of the bill said the resolution will convey a message concerning federal land in Utah.
"We have the ability to make a determination as to Utahns as to what we want to do with those lands," he said.
He denounced a congressional bill to designate as wilderness more than 9 million acres, which would be "essentially off-limits to anything but a person walking there."
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, said the proposed wilderness areas "actually would block our ability to create a transportation corridor" to remove energy resources from Uintah and Duchesne counties.
"It's prudent that we not shackle our ability to produce energy from the natural resources on our public lands located within the state by creating more wilderness," he said.
Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, said energy production in Utah is compatible with protecting wilderness land. In Kane, Garfield and Wayne counties, the BLM has said that designating wilderness would not make any difference in the oil and gas production in 15 to 20 years, she said. Even in the Uinta Basin, wilderness would only reduce the predicted oil and gas years by 3.5 percent in the next 15 years, she said.
Majority Leader Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, responded, "15 or 20 years, no energy development? No impact? I still plan on being around in 15 or 20 years." Wilderness would lock up land past his and his grandchildren's generations, he said. "There are ways to do this. There are middle grounds and there are opportunities to find balance in this program."
Clark said the 9-million-acre bill is an extreme measure. He finds it "extremely offensive" that people who may have visited Utah only once probably Park City could designate wilderness in the state.
Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake, said wilderness draws visitors to this part of the country, and the state doesn't have enough wilderness land. With less than 1 million acres designated as federal wilderness areas, the state has less than other western states, she added.
Noel's comments were by far the most blistering of the debate. He said colleagues on the other side of the aisle don't have compassion for the disabled because wheelchairs aren't allowed in wilderness areas. He argued for state sovereignty, as the federal government has title to most of the land in the state.
"Are we supposed to exist on one-third of the property in our state?" he said. "Are we supposed to tax our citizens to the maximum while the federal government gives us a pittance back in payment in-lieu of taxes of 10 to 15 cents an acre?
"I say it's wrong, I say it's disingenuous, and I say it's time to stand up and say that these are public lands within our state that we can control. We own the water, we own the roads, let's protect them and say no to more wilderness in Utah."
House Minority Whip Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, responded that what to do with federal land is a national issue.
"There are national implications, policy implications that go far beyond Utah," he said. "I would hate to think that we're setting some kind of precedence here that would mute the voice of our congressional delegation in other areas that would have implications for us."
It would set a bad precedent, he added, "to put policy with national implications solely within the decision-making authority of the congressional representation from that particular area of the country."
After the overwhelming House vote in favor of the resolution, Steven Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said, "Bad facts make bad policy." He added that many of the arguments against wilderness were "just flat-out wrong."One of the statements he cited was that by Noel concerning the handicapped, Bloch added. "Rep. Noel alleged that wheelchairs are not allowed in wilderness areas that's simply not the case."