Utah Legislators Attack Wilderness Group

Utah Legislators Attack Wilderness Group

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A committee of Utah legislators that set out to discuss energy policy dealt first with an old nemesis: the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Legislators turned against a staff lawyer they invited from the preservation group, accusing SUWA of wielding too much clout and overstating the need for more wilderness. The lawyer, Steve Bloch, is a member of the Legislature's Energy Policy Working Group and was invited to brief a standing committee.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance hasn't succeeded in more than a dozen years of trying to get Congress to adopt a 9.1 million-acre Redrock Wilderness Act for the southern half of the state. But it has fought encroachment of wild lands, helped defeat "bad" wilderness legislation and proven itself a worthy adversary at Bureau of Land Management proceedings.

Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Kanab, said he was bothered that SUWA portrays Utah's open public lands of being in imminent danger from development, despite federal environmental laws governing energy exploitation.

Noel, a former Bureau of Land Management employee, asserted the alliance didn't deal honestly or credibly with facts, and another legislator complained SUWA avoided dealing with rural leaders.

In one tense exchange before the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee, Noel turned to Bloch and said: "You give the impression that the balance of public lands not protected under wilderness are going to be destroyed." They briefly debated the effectiveness of federal laws governing use of public lands.

Noel complained SUWA was too influential. The group has about 15,000 dues-paying members, many of them from out of state. Noel said each Utah representative has as many constituents -- "and look at the impact (SUWA) has on the state. I think it's been a negative impact."

Noel has stood behind Kane County's defiance of the BLM over grazing and motorized access at the nearly 2 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In a standoff two years old that has yet to be resolved, Kane County officials yanked dozens of monument signs closing routes to motorized traffic.

Bloch offered to "debunk what I call some myths" about the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He said the group rarely challenges a drilling permit and that its wilderness proposals don't threaten established oil fields.

Utah's oil and gas industry has 1 million acres of land under production and permission to drill on another 3.5 million acres in the state. It is limited only by the availability of drilling crews and rigs, he said.

In the Uinta Basin oil field, the BLM approved 3,000 drilling applications from 2001 through last week, and work has started on 1,700 of those parcels, Bloch said.

SUWA has challenged only five drilling applications -- and lost on all five cases, out of thousands of permits approved, he said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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