SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would protect more than 8 million acres of Utah’s red rock land was introduced Monday by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and is set to be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by California Rep. Alan Lowenthal.
If that sounds like a broken record, it’s likely because Durbin has introduced a similar bill — referred to as “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act” — in Washington multiple times since 1996, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. It’s a bill that was first introduced by Congress in 1989 but has never made it through Congress.
The text hasn’t changed much over time. The bill introduced Monday seeks designations for the Great Basin, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Moab-La Sal Canyons, Henry Mountains, Glen Canyon, San Juan-Anasazi, Canyonlands Basin, San Rafael Swell, Book Cliffs and Uinta Basin wilderness areas.
Those are places that are “rich in archaeological resources and home to numerous rare plant and animal species,” Durbin’s office wrote in a press release. His office also argued those areas are access points for research and recreational activities.
However, it is the first time the bill has been submitted since the Emery County Public Management Act was signed into law within the Dingell Natural Resources Management Act back in March. And Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mitt Romney, and Utah representatives Rob Bishop and John Curtis all rebuked this year’s attempt to pass the rock bill, calling it a “land grab” and arguing that it would undercut the recently-enacted ECPMA.
The group of Utah Republican leaders said the ECPMA was a compromise between various groups from recreationists and conversationalists to ranchers and mineral developers over “decades-long” disputes over federal land designations in the county.
Herbert said he was “disappointed” in the bill, asserting that the best way to create land bills is at a local level since people who live in the area are most affected by it.
“The final lands package was based on a good faith agreement to bring certainty to thousands of acres of land in Emery County and ensure those lands would remain accessible to Utahns,” Romney added, in a statement Monday. “The ink is barely dry on the lands package, and Senator Durbin and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are already reneging on that agreement by pushing this land grab.”
Bishop and Curtis agreed. Curtis, who introduced the ECPMA last year, said the proposed red rock bill would have “a chilling effect on good faith efforts to solve these difficult public land issues.”
“The bill feeds the narrative that some care more about profit from donor fundraising than preservation of the majestic landscapes of Utah they claim to care so much about,” Curtis said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Senator Durbin has refused to take a meeting with me or even get on the phone regarding this issue, proving his real intentions to raise money off of Utah wilderness as opposed to working collaboratively for the good of the land.”
The Emery County Commissioners and the county's Public Lands Council have also denounced the bill.
Meanwhile, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance promoted the bill on its website, saying that it would “safeguard” Utah’s wilderness areas from possible oil and gas development, from increased use of motorized vehicles in the area and also help end the destruction of Native American cultural sites.
“Protection of these lands keeps fossil fuels in the ground, preserves key habitat for native flora and fauna affected by climate change, and ensure these landscapes endure for the enjoyment of all Americans,” the organization wrote on its website.
Durbin also tweeted Monday about the bill, which has the support of eight other senators — all of whom are all Democrats or independent. They include 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders.
“Utah has acres of untouched wilderness that is rich in archaeological resources. But this land is threatened by continued fossil fuel development & rampant off-road vehicle use,” Durbin’s tweet about the issue read. “If we want to safeguard Utah's wilderness, we must act now.”