Why this Illinois senator says he's making another push for Utah 'red rock' wilderness bill

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Hikers in Harris Wash, within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

(Dave Cawley, KSL NewsRadio, File)



SALT LAKE CITY — An Illinois senator has again reintroduced a piece of legislation that would protect 8.4 million acres of Utah land home to rare plants and animal species, in addition to archaeological resources.

The America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, reintroduced by U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, on Monday, has the support of a Utah conservation organization but, again, appears to lack support from Utah's congressional leadership, who attacked the bill the last time it was introduced.

The bill would designate parts of land all over Utah as wilderness, including swaths of southeastern, eastern and western Utah. All of the land that would be designated under the bill is already managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

According to Durbin, the bureau agrees that land covered in the bill could meet the qualifications of a wilderness designation. He argues that the designation is needed because the area is "threatened by oil, gas, and tar sands development, as well as rampant off-road vehicle use activities that could significantly damage the lands."

"With the America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, we can protect America's remaining wild places and reaffirm our nation's commitment to the preservation of our national heritage," he said, in a statement Monday. "Our public lands are under increasing pressure, both from development encroachment and from attacks by those who would prefer to see them sold off to the highest bidder. Congress needs to act to ensure that these lands remain in their natural condition for current and future generations of Americans to enjoy."

Durbin last introduced the legislation in 2019 and has also introduced the bill a handful of times over the past 24 years — every time ending in the bill being stalled in Congress. Then-Gov. Gary Herbert and three of Utah's congressional leaders sharply opposed the bill when it was last reintroduced in 2019, calling the bill a "land grab."

In December 2019, Utah Rep. John Curtis, who like the other Utah representatives is a Republican and whose House district includes a large chunk of the land that would be included in the act, said Durbin refused to meet or take a phone call with him to discuss the bill.

The bill reintroduced Monday has the support of six other senators, none of whom represent Utah and all of whom are members of the Democratic Party.

A spokesperson for Curtis said in a statement to KSL.com Wednesday that Durbin, again, hasn't met at all with Utah representatives. They also questioned the bill itself.

"It is clear the Red Rock Wilderness Act is not serious legislation but just an effort to fundraise off a liberal base that doesn't know any better," the statement read, in part. "Congressman Curtis feels that if Sen. Durbin cared about actually protecting important public lands he would work with the Utah delegation to find consensus, not introduce partisan legislation that's failed to pass for decades — for good reason."

It's unclear how the shift in power in the Senate since December 2019 would shift the discussion that has existed in Washington over two decades now. The Senate essentially now has a 50-50 split between party lines since the two Senate's two independent senators caucus with Democrats. A vote tie-breaker also leans to the Democratic Party since that vote is given to Vice President Kamala Harris.

Meanwhile, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance applauded Durbin for introducing the bill again.

"America's Red Rock Wilderness Act is more important than ever as we face the climate crisis and the nature crisis," said Jen Ujifusa, the legislative director for the organization, in a statement Tuesday. "Its passage would keep fossil fuels in the ground, preserve habitat connectivity and resiliency, and allow the desert lands to continue to sequester carbon, all while protecting the visual and cultural resources contained on the land for generations to come."

Moore co-introduces bill to digitize federal land map records

Also in Washington this week, Utah Rep. Blake Moore co-introduced a bipartisan bill that seeks to digitize and standardize federal mapping records, which they say will make it easier for hunters, anglers and anyone else using federally managed land for outdoor recreation to get access on "essential information" about public lands.

Moore joined Reps. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, Joe Neguse, D-Colorado, and Kim Schrier, D-Washington, in introducing the Modernizing Access to our Public Land Act on Tuesday.

The representatives say there are more than 9.5 million acres of land in the West that "lack permanent and legal access points for public use." Most of it, they said, is still kept on paper files. For instance, only about 5,000 of the 37,000 U.S. Forest Service-recorded easements are digitized.

The bill would give federal management agencies the resources needed to digitize all the remaining files for public use. It would also require the agencies to provide information on any season vehicle restrictions on public roads or trails, as well as hunting boundaries and watercraft restrictions.

"Each year, millions of Americans venture into the great outdoors without having the most up-to-date data on land access," Moore said, in a statement after the bill was introduced. "I am proud to sponsor the MAPLand Act, which would address this by digitizing tens of thousands of records to ensure that fishers, hikers, bikers, hunters and all who seek to enjoy our federal lands have access to the information they need to fully experience our country's natural wonders."

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