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Wilderness After Senator Bennett

U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness, Washington County, Utah

By Dan Bammes

Salt Lake City, UT – A gentle wind is blowing clouds across a blue sky over Cottonwood Canyon just north of St. George. This area is now protected as wilderness after the passage of the Washington County Lands Bill, something that's been held up as a model for resolving the status of public lands in Utah. Several other counties have been working on their own proposals for wilderness. But the U-S Senator who championed the Washington County bill won't be re-elected and without him, some of those proposals appear to be unraveling.

Sherrell Ward is a rancher who was a delegate to the state Republican convention. He's also a member of the Emery County Public Lands Council. Bennett's support for his county's work on wilderness was one of the reasons he supported Bennett. Before delegates voted to deny Bennett the Republican nomination at the state convention, Ward said, "More than any of the other Senate candidates, they have been involved, givi"ng us advice, talking to us about what happened in Washington, what will make us come up with a good land-use bill, what we should have in it and the issues we should try to deal with there."

Less than an hour after that conversation, Senator Bennett's future was decided. That's left some proposals that appeared to be moving toward resolution in limbo. In San Juan County, members of the senator's staff were ready to go on field trips to some of the areas proposed for wilderness there. Now, Bennett says, that's unlikely to happen. He says it would be very difficult to put a new public lands bill on the table in the time he has left in office. "My status has changed, fairly clearly," he says, "and as a result of that, it's fairly easy for some of my colleagues here to say, OK, we're not going to be dealing with it in the current Congress. Senator Bennett is not gonna be back in the next Congress as we thought he was going to be, so we don't really need to pay that much attention to what's going on.'"

That's a disappointment to Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, who says those field trips can often be places where minds are changed and agreements can be worked out. "We have seen that issues that are very difficult to resolve over maps can sometimes be resolved in the field between people that disagree strongly, simply because when you look at the land, the issues do look different. They move a little bit beyond the ideological realm and into the practicality of - where should a route be closed, for example. Sometimes on the ground, the answer becomes more obvious to all the people involved," Groene said.

Will Bennett's successor pick up the wilderness issue? A question of ideology is important to one of the candidates who defeated Senator Bennett at the convention. Mike Lee cites a section of the U-S Constitution that he says lays out a critical step in making public lands decisions. "We need to remember a portion of the Constitution that needs to be taken into account in this discussion, which is Article 1 Section 8 Clause 17, sometimes referred to as the Enclave Clause," Lee maintains. "It says, in essence, that the federal government may exercise exclusive legislative jurisdiction within a state's sovereign borders if the federal government has obtained the consent of the state legislature of that state."

In the past, the Utah legislature hasn't been friendly to the idea of wilderness, and it's an open question whether a proposal similar to the Washington County bill could pass.

Lee's opponent, Tim Bridgewater, is less rigid on the legal structure, but he's also not ready to push ahead immediately on wilderness bills. Bridgewater says, "Once elected as Senator, I'm not going to rubber-stamp a proposal that I have no input on and no discussion with the local officials regarding their best interests. So my perspective is it's gonna take time, if I'm elected in November, and have the chance to have input on these issues, I want to spend a lot of time with the local officials to make the right decision."

But local leaders who've been ready to bring bills to the table say they've already been working on them for years. Piute County Commissioner Rick Blackwell told KUER, "I think the last six years . . . for that to go to waste, I don't want to see that happen. I think it's a great opportunity and now's the time to do this, if we can do it. I think with the Washington County passing the way it did, I think there's a great opportunity to get the Piute County and the Beaver bill passed. I just feel bad for what's happened because I think now's the time to do it. I don't want to start over again.

Senator Orrin Hatch, not Bennett, had been planning to carry the bill proposed by Piute and Beaver Counties. But it's been sidetracked as well, in part because of public opposition when it was presented at open houses last month. Beaver County Commissioner Chad Johnson says, "We felt like we had a pretty good plan, but when we took it to the public, they had a little bit different opinion . . . The comments we got were pretty general. We don't like wilderness, we don't want wilderness, it's restrictive, the things that we've heard, y'know, forever."

Even if counties don't bring a negotiated wilderness proposal to Congress, that doesn't mean wilderness won't happen. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups support the Red Rock wilderness bill, which would set aside vast areas of public land.

Some members of Congress also worry the Obama administration might create new national monuments like the Grand Staircase-Escalante. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar denies this - he's pledged support for the local negotiated process like Washington County. But Bennett says he can't rule it out. "I accept Secretary Salazar at his word when he says they're not planning to do that, but I know there are people within the Department of Interior, still there, who are undoubtedly thinking about it. And whether they're drawing up maps or not, I really wouldn't be surprised."

Even without Senator Bennett, the negotiated land use resolution process - what's become known as the Washington County process - still has some powerful patrons. Congressman Jim Matheson was its champion in the House, and his staff is still working with local leaders on the proposals in San Juan and Emery counties. And Governor Gary Herbert promised in his monthly news conference in May that he would not let it falter. "We've come up with a model that I think works and will continue to work, regardless of the individual players and who they are," said Herbert. "And my thrust is to continue to move ahead and resolve that difficult issue of public lands."

And the wind blows over the cliffs and pinnacles of the San Rafael Swell, an area still waiting for its legal status to be resolved. Whether that happens anytime soon may depend on the commitment of local leaders, state officials, environmentalists and members of Congress to keep talking.

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