Bill would keep one-sixth of Utah wild

Green groups support measure; officials say it would kill economy

Nearly 17 percent of Utah would become federally designated wilderness under a New York congressman’s proposal that will get a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

The Red Rocks Wilderness Act, sponsored by representatives from Arizona and New York, would designate 9.4 million of Utah’s nearly 53 million acres as wilderness, including lands on the San Rafael Swell area west of Green River, as well as part of the Book Cliffs and the Fisher Tower area.

The proposal, which was introduced first in 1989 by U.S. Rep, Wayne Owens, a Democrat, has split Utah on political and regional lines.

Utah’s entire congressional delegation, including its lone Democrat, Jim Matheson, opposes the measure, H.R. 1925. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat, is to speak in favor of the measure.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is taking the lead in pushing the bill, which has some local officials scrambling for cover.

“It feels a bit like the set for the gunfight at noon between SUWA and some other politicians,” Grand County Council Chairman Bob Greenberg said. “We could get shot.”

It’s not that Grand County, home to Moab and its famed slickrock trails, arches and desert landscapes, is opposed to the idea of wilderness.

Grand County has its own wilderness plan “that we sweated out and developed,” Greenberg said.

Emery County, immediately west of Grand County, is against the Red Rocks Wilderness Act, according to Commission Chairman Gary Kofford.

“If they put us into wilderness, it just kills the county,” he said.

Emery County’s 2 million acres now contain about 450,000 acres in a wilderness-study area. H.R. 1925 would designate 1.2 million acres of Emery County as wilderness, meaning 65 percent would be off-limits to development, mining and off-road vehicles.

That could be devastating to the local economy, Kofford said.

“I’d say that 70 percent of the population relies on coal, natural gas or power generation” for employment, he said.

On its Web site, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said the vast majority of Utah land administered by the Bureau of Land Management would remain available for oil and gas development.

Inventories by the BLM recognize 7.1 million acres as qualifying for wilderness designation, and the association said the remaining lands are yet to be inventoried by the agency.

Grand and Emery counties both are interested in a compromise that was pioneered in Washington County in the state’s southwest corner that designated 256,000 acres as wilderness.

Gov. Gary Herbert supports a focused, regional approach that “is much more effective than the shotgun method used by proponents of the Red Rocks bill,” said his spokeswoman, Angie Wells, in an e-mail.

Matheson also supports the Washington County approach, which he helped write, said his spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend.

Greenberg said he is sensing a developing consensus that wilderness designations be left to local officials to draft.

“We’d like to be masters of our own fate,” Greenberg said.


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