In an effort to show that the state of Utah won't simply sell off all of the federal land it hopes to seize from Washington, state legislators Tuesday gave a favorable nod to a bill that establishes the Utah Wilderness Act.---
Modeled loosely on the Federal Wilderness Act of 1965, Utah's act would dictate a process for establishing wilderness in the event the federal government yields to state lawmakers' demands that it hand over vast chunks of land it manages.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said House Bill 160 would be a step toward taking control of the oft-negative perception that Utah wouldn't manage these lands responsibly.
Critics of Utah's efforts, magnified by the passage in 2013 of House Bill 148, which aims to take back much of the federal land in Utah's borders, have said the state's cuddly relationship with polluters, drillers and miners would prove to be catastrophic to preservation and conservation efforts.
“There are many inside and outside of Utah that believe we are not capable of managing Utah's federal lands,” Handy said, noting that critics of Utah's land use policies believe the Beehive State would implement “exploitative and neanderthalic” land management policies.
One piece of Handy's bill, though, was unpalatable to the majority of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.
A provision stating that a Utah wilderness designation would “recognize and protect in perpetuity areas where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans and where humans are visitors that do not remain,” was cut from the bill.
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, suggested this phrase be left out. Handy said it was “highfalutin,” to which Barrus said, “it is.”
Barrus said he feared this provision would prevent the state from treating insect infestations, performing fire suppression efforts, landing helicopters during emergencies and allowing for livestock grazing.
He said the goal of the bill, and state control of sensitive lands, should be to promote and provide access for ever more people on these beloved lands. “Right now there are very few people who can access and enjoy them,” he said.
Not all committee members agreed. Six dissented, while eight voted in favor of cutting this verse.
David Garbett, staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the bill allows a number of activities not typically allowed on land designated wilderness.
"The bill has many problems, one of which is the fact that it would allow mining, drilling, transmission lines, and other unwilderness-like activities in areas designated as wilderness," he told City Weekly, noting that the bill limits this designation to any federal land handed over, not to existing state lands that might deserve protection.
In the end, though, the Utah Wilderness Act passed the committee with an 11-2 vote, with Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, and Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, voting against the bill. The two men expressed concerns about mineral rights, which would be allowed in some instances for up to 20 years.
The bill, utilizing as it does the word wilderness, made it difficult for some legislators to swallow. But any concerns that the bill was some kind of land grab by groups looking to protect land was soothed by the support it received from Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who said “it's been really hard for me to even say the 'W' word.”
As a three-time Boyscout master, Noel said he's had trouble taking large groups of young men into federally designated wilderness areas, and he thinks the state of Utah can do it better.
To read HB 160, click here. To contact Rep. Handy, click here. To find your representative using your address, click here. For more coverage of the legislature visit CityWeekly.net and follow @ColbyFrazierLP and @EricSPeterson on Twitter.