Environmentalists and their congressional allies are renewing legislative efforts to have over 9 million acres in Utah designated as wilderness.
Sponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) and New York Congressman Maurise Hinchey (D), “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act” (S. 799 and H.R. 1925) would establish 9.4 million acres of wilderness in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and areas adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park, Cayyonlands National Park, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area – all of which are located in Utah
By designating this vast tract of federal land as wilderness, all oil and natural gas exploration, mining, and off-highway vehicle use would be prohibited within the boundaries of the area. According to a 2002 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the area contains roughly 65 million barrels of recoverable oil and 1,495 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. However, the USGS estimate does not take into account advances in drilling technology which could make the amount of recoverable oil and gas far greater than what was thought to be the case seven years ago.
Indeed, 22 percent of Utah’s lands are already off limits to economic activity, and the addition of the proposed Red Rock Wilderness Area would raise that figure to 39 percent. By locking up the area’s substantial natural resources, the bill has become anathema to Utah lawmakers. Not a single member of Utah’s congressional delegation has signed on to co-sponsor the bill, and the legislation has not been endorsed by any political leaders in the state.
While Utah public officials make no secret of their opposition to the bill, environmental groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club enthusiastically back the legislation. The Sierra Club’s Web site, for example, invites visitors to compose personalized letters to their senators and representatives in support of the Durbin-Hinchey bill, saying wilderness designation “will give these beautiful lands the protection they deserve.”
The first Red Rock Wilderness bill was introduced in 1989, and it sought to set aside some 5 million acres. In the ensuing 20 years, the bill has been re-introduced several times, and the area to be locked up has nearly doubled in size. But fierce opposition from Utah lawmakers and public officials, as well as from other advocates of resource development has kept it from coming up for a vote on the House or Senate floor. The bill currently has around 100 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, almost all of them representing districts and states located hundreds or even thousands of miles from Utah.
Passage of the giant omnibus wilderness bill earlier this year, together with the Obama administration’s hostility toward fossil fuels, has given supporters of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act reason to believe that the bill this time will not go down in flames. But opponents are not going to go gently into the night. Rep. Bob Bishop (R-Utah) has called the bill “ridiculous.” In the same vein, some 50 House Republicans, many of them members of the Congressional Western Caucus, have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar criticizing efforts to curtail energy development in the West, and pointing to the devastating economic effect such short-sighted policies have on rural communities.