Salt Lake City, UT – The so-called Washington County process for negotiating wilderness and other public lands issues in Utah looked like it was in trouble after the defeat of Senator Bob Bennett earlier this year. But there may be some life in it yet - in Piute County, where Commissioner Rick Blackwell thinks the time is right to take their bill to Congress. "We think it's a good opportunity, with all those stakeholders involved and with all the meetings we've held and the people that's been involved, we think it's a good thing to get this presented and get it done now, at this time."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is one of the stakeholders that's been working on the proposal in meetings and site visits. Director Scott Groene says the Piute County proposal is unique. "The bulk of lands involved are actually Forest Service lands rather than Bureau of Land Management lands. In other counties, the Bureau of Land Management lands are those at issue. In Piute, the lands that are most important are probably the Tushar Mountains and Monroe Mountain, which are high elevation, beautiful places."
The process that could lead to new wilderness designation in Piute County is based on the model that worked in Washington County - bringing groups with different interests together to talk about where the lines should be drawn and what long-term protections should be in place for federal land. Several counties in southern Utah had been working on proposals, but some of them have hit snags, especially after the defeat of Senator Bennett.
In Piute County, it's Senator Orrin Hatch's staff that's been working with the commissioners on their proposal. But Hatch is not sure it's ready to move ahead before Congress adjourns in December. "The problem is, you have the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which I think keeps itself and keeps the money coming in by never getting anything done."
"I think the Senator is poorly informed," Groene counters. "In fact, we've been working to try to get legislation, which is our goal here." Groene says the bill could move ahead as soon as one sticky issue is worked out: authorizing federal authorities to trade state trust lands within the proposed wilderness areas for other parcels of federal land elsewhere in Utah. And that's where he says SUWA could use its influence to move the bill ahead. "The land exchange component will be controversial, and frankly, we can be useful here by working with Democratic committee staff to ease some of their concerns about that, more so than other players in this discussion."
But the most difficult hurdle to overcome is likely to be the limited time Congress has left in the current session.
The August recess is just beginning. Lawmakers will have just a few weeks left to work in September and again after the election this fall.
The Piute County bill has yet to be drafted, much less introduced. Congressman Jim Matheson already has one wilderness bill pending for watershed areas in Salt Lake County, but he's ready to add this one if it looks like there's a chance to move it through. "I don't want to diminish all the effort that's gone into this. I think there's been a lot of progress, a lot of consensus has been built, and I'm hopeful we can push it over the finish line."
That's just what Commissioner Rick Blackwell is hoping for. "We're still pressing forward, hoping we can solve these issues and go on with the bill and get it presented. As soon as possible."
Sara Sciamacco and Manuel Quinones from Capitol News Connection contributed to this report.