Call it the Red Rock Rumble.
Utah Republicans Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Rob Bishop introduced legislation this week to designate 289,000 acres in an Illinois national forest as wilderness. It’s Republicans’ latest retort to an ongoing effort to create new wilderness areas in Utah state.
The bill is called The Shawnee Wilderness Area Designation Act, and it isn’t supposed to pass, said Bishop.
“One good turn deserves another, and one stupid bill demands another,” he said.
Bishop and Romney introduced the legislation in response to the latest bill filed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The Red Rock Wilderness Act seeks to create 8.2 million acres of wilderness in southern Utah.
Democrats have been filing versions of the bill for 30 years, and Bishop said he’s tired of it.
“The bill is nothing more than a publicity stunt to give eastern senators the ability of fundraising with environmental groups, and to give groups like [The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] the ability to fundraise off of this bill,” he said.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, is a conservation group based in Salt Lake City that has championed America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act for decades. The bill was first introduced by former U.S. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, in 1989, after a group called the Utah Wilderness Coalition proposed the creation of 5.7 million acres of wilderness land in Utah.
“It has been the flagship of a movement to protect these lands in southern Utah,” said SUWA executive director Scott Groene.
And this isn’t the first time Utah lawmakers have filed retaliatory legislation in response to it, Bishop said.
After Owens retired in 1992, U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, introduced the legislation in 1994. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who preceded Bishop, responded with a bill to create a wilderness area in Hinchey’s district, Bishop said.
Durbin first filed America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in the Senate in 1997 and has done so each Congress since. In 2009, the bill received its only hearing to date.
During that hearing, Bishop argued that designating the federal land identified in the bill as wilderness would make it harder for the state to fund its public school system.
“So it is one of those simple situations that whenever you do changes to public lands in Utah there will be collateral damage, and there will be collateral damage that hits kids,” he said.
The Utah State Board of Education, the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the National Education Association and all 15 counties affected by the bill wrote letters opposing it in 2009.
While the legislation faces substantial local opposition, Groene says it has inspired laws to designate 1 million acres of wilderness in Washington and Emery counties.
“Neither one of those bills would have ever seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the pressure put on Utah’s delegation from America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act,” Groene said. “Nor would those bills have protected near as much wilderness if it hadn’t been for the Red Rock champions, notably, in both cases, Senator Dick Durbin.”
Durbin introduced America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in the Senate on Monday. It has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.
Correction 2:17 MST, 12/23/19: A previous headline for this story listed the incorrect number of acres The Red Rock Wilderness Act would impact.