A discussion at the recent public lands council meeting concerning the proposed Utah Association of Counties Wilderness Bill brought up both sides of the wilderness issue. UAC is proposing that on a county by county basis each county recommend an acreage of wilderness that they could live with. Bringing the bill before Congress and having them deal with Utah Wilderness with a designation in Utah would, they hope, put an end to the wilderness debate and quiet the environmentalists.
Commissioner Drew Sitterud said that some of the counties will have their recommendations in by Aug. 15. Commissioner Gary Kofford said, "We have been living with WSAs since 1974 and dealing with not having access for the past 30 years." Commissioner Kofford said the current WSAs in Emery County encompass 420,000 acres. He felt if the bill can resolve conflicts then why not go ahead.
Vernell Rowley from the lands council brought up the water issues with wilderness designation. Craig Johansen pointed out that we are indeed vulnerable on water issues. The UAC proposal contains strong wording on water that was written by Johansen. It was mentioned that the UAC proposal was for 1.9 million acres of wilderness statewide and the governor is going with the 3.2 million acre figure. Either way the Emery County portion would remain around the 420,000 acre figure.
The BLM wilderness survey identified 1.9 million acres of true wilderness in the state.
Commissioner Sitterud said the UAC bill has probably no chance of passing. Ray Petersen, public lands director for the county, said he sees no sense in going forward with any type of bill that is less than the 3.2 million acre statewide figure and that, "It wouldn't get off the ground."
Johansen mentioned the county's own proposal from 1995 was for 184,000 acres which was less than the BLM preferred proposal. The committee that was formed at that time held public hearings and put together the proposal. That committee was the forerunner of the present day lands council.
Kirk Johansen posed the question, "Are they only proposing this to avoid something worse?" Commissioner Kofford said that only Congress can designate wilderness and the WSAs have been in existence since 1974 and the thought is to resolve an issue that you've had before you for 30 years. Each county has different circumstances and the West Desert counties did not want some of their area designated because it is used for training for Hill Air Force base. Kane County has the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and doesn't feel the need for WSA on top of the monument.
Mike Reberg, the state director for Jim Matheson's congressional office was also present at the meeting. He said Matheson's office has not been presented with the UAC proposal and he was not aware of who would sponsor such a bill if it came forth. He felt any bill which is not fully vetted and didn't have byoff by all stakeholders would be problematic. He did state however that Matheson doesn't support the nine million acre Red Rock Wilderness Bill. He said that language in such bills is often as much a problem as the acreage involved.
Sen. Bennett's representative, Donna Sackett said that Sen. Bennett would not support anything without county and state support of a proposal.
Commissioner Kofford said what the commission needs to know is whether to support, pursue or stay out of such a bill. It was determined that the commission will hold public hearings to present the information to the public and hear public input on the matter. The first of such meetings will be held on Sept 2. at 7 p.m. at the Museum of the San Rafael.
Dennis Worwood who is the public lands chairman was not in attendance at the meeting that day, but had sent a letter to the commission and the lands council stating his position on the UAC Wilderness Bill. His concern being that a bill of 1.8 or 1.9 million acres would have little chance of passing and he sees a danger in bringing such a bill forward. "In 1995 when Utah went to Congress with its 1.8 million acre wilderness bill, SUWA had 12,000 members and when the bill was defeated one year later, SUWA's membership had swelled to 21,000 members and their budget nearly doubled in that years time. It is SUWAs goal to make Utah Wilderness a national issue as was done in Alaska when 57 million acres of wilderness was designated over loud objections by that state," said Worwood.
Randy Johnson who is the governor's public lands consultant felt like the UAC bill could put Emery County in harm's way. The BLM found 3.2 million acres statewide, but only recommended the 1.8 million acre figure. "This lower figure now does not represent the political reality of the wilderness debate in Utah. The concern with this bill is that some counties with large areas of beautiful BLM lands, like Emery County could be vulnerable to the amending process if this bill starts moving in Washington and more acreage is added to make it more politically acceptable."
Johnson also commented on Governor Leavitt's possible appointment to head the environmental protection agency.
"The governor will be bound by law and his first allegiance is to environmental law, but a western perspective in the EPA would be very refreshing and especially Gov. Mike Leavitt being able to take his enlibra principles and help make environmental policy more collaborative and less contentious," said Johnson.