Illinois senators take aim at Utah’s private lands

Published January 1, 2000

Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) has reintroduced his Red Rock Canyon National Wilderness Act, S. 861, which would effectively prohibit human activity in ten areas of Utah, restricting nearly 9 million acres. While he admits that both Utah senators, Republicans Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennet, oppose his bill, Durbin is going ahead. He has been joined in the effort by about a dozen cosponsors, including his fellow Illinois senator, Republican Peter Fitzgerald.

Durbin said a number of environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club of Illinois, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), and the Wilderness Society, have been urging him for years to sponsor the bill, which he agreed to do after touring the area several years ago.

A companion bill, H.R. 1732, has been introduced in the U.S. House by Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who represents upstate New York.

Legislators in the East and Midwest, whose home states have very little federally owned land, may find that their sponsorship of such bills brings them support among constituents largely unfamiliar with the West. But Durbin’s bill, and similar efforts to isolate public lands from public use, do not play well among the residents and representatives of Utah, where nearly seven of every 10 acres belong to the U.S. government and are controlled by decisions made in Washington, DC.

People for the USA (PFUSA), a Pueblo, Colorado-based grassroots land rights organization, has had little difficulty enlisting new members to fight what many call a “war on the west.” According to the Deseret News, the group has tripled its Utah membership in just eight months. “Utah is a top priority for us,” PFUSA’s communications director told the paper.

This past summer, the group actively protested federal government efforts to deny public use of public lands. In May, hundreds of PFUSA members lobbied Kane County (Utah) commissioners for the right to use public roads in a newly declared national monument. In June, 300 people traveled by convoy to a piece of state-owned land within a federal wilderness near Vernal, Utah. Then a letter-writing seminar led to 800 letters voicing concern over the federal Bureau of Land Management’s wilderness inventory. BLM controls much of the land with tight land-use restrictions.

In July, PFUSA held an all-day rally, which included a 100-vehicle convoy, in Escalante, Utah, in the heart of the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The monument, designated by the Clinton Gore administration just before the last Presidential election, prevents mining in one of only two sites in the world known to have accessible, unusually clean-burning coal. The other site is in Indonesia. The monument’s designation has, according to local residents, deterred businesses from coming to the area, stifling economic opportunity.

Rick Crawford, who runs the PFUSA chapter in Escalante, told the Deseret News, “We feel the rights to live in this valley and raise our families are being attacked, and these special interest groups would like nothing more than to have this valley empty.”

Later in July, the group was part of a 300-vehicle convoy that journeyed to southern Utah, to the steps of the state’s capitol.

During a trip to Escalante, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt met with 40 PFUSA member, who reported they gave him the “human side” of the story.

“We’ve known about [PFUSA] for a while,” said Leavitt’s aide on land issues. “They seem to have significant numbers and significant organizational skills. It is certainly a legitimate point of view.”

Nevertheless, efforts to eliminate human activity on public land in the West continue.

Durbin’s bill joins the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, sponsored by Chris Shays (R-Connecticut) and written by the activist environmentalist group Alliance for the Wild Rockies. (See “Connecticut Congressman would wall off land in five western states,” Environment News, September 1999.)

The Clinton-Gore administration has directed the U.S. Forest Service to draw up plans to restrict the use of 40 million “roadless acres.” The directive is so vague that no legislator or aide interviewed by Environment News for this story could explain what areas would be affected by the directive or what the impact might be on residents or local economies.