This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sen. Orrin Hatch recently introduced a bill to create a "withdrawal zone" across Bureau of Land Management lands, effectively expanding by 625,000 acres the operational footprint of the Utah Test and Training Range in Utah's West Desert. The bill in its current form is completely unacceptable.
In 2014, Hatch attempted to stick similar legislation on a national defense package, but was rebuffed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was alarmed by the environmental effects of the legislation. Unfortunately, the latest version, S. 2383, is worse than before. It abandons bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, imperils future wilderness designations for incredible places like the Newfoundland Mountains, Deep Creek Mountains and Dugway Mountains, facilitates a land exchange accelerating development in proposed wilderness areas, and eviscerates the legal process for making rights-of-way claims over federal lands by instead simply handing them to counties.
Notably, none of those things have been requested by the military.
By granting rights-of-way directly to Box Elder, Juab and Tooele counties, the bill reveals itself for what it is: a massive land grab disguised under vague, feel-good rhetoric about our armed forces. These counties, along with the state of Utah, are using taxpayer dollars and an obscure law known as RS 2477 to sue the federal government over thousands of miles of supposed "state highways." In reality, many of them are merely streambeds, cowpaths or fading two-tracks not highways by any straight-faced definition. But in this legislation, rather than bear their heavy burden to wrest title from the United States, the counties skip away with bogus claims in hand.
Meanwhile, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration asserts the bill is a win for kids because it swaps lands within the proposed expanded test range for exploitable federal lands without. The money from future development then goes to a special fund, a small percentage of which is given annually to Utah schools. But large chunks of the land SITLA now seeks are in proposed wilderness, a line the agency has avoided crossing for more than 20 years. There is a right and a wrong way to do these exchanges, and it is cynical and wrong to destroy our children's wilderness birthright and tell them it's for their own good.
The right way to proceed would be to use the usual SITLA standard to facilitate a land exchange that does not imperil proposed wilderness, to remove the egregious road giveaways to counties, and to use the legislation to protect important wilderness areas, which would actually benefit the test range.
We've done it before. In 2006 the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance worked successfully with Rep. Rob Bishop to designate the Cedar Mountains Wilderness adjacent to the test range. That bill said what we all know to be true: that continued use of the test range airspace "is not incompatible with the protection and proper management of the natural, environmental, cultural, and other resources" of "covered wilderness." In fact, the Pentagon sees wilderness as a desirable buffer for its important military facilities. The bill was supported by all members of Utah's congressional delegation, including Hatch.
Instead of using this legislation to needlessly harm and degrade our shared public lands heritage, Hatch should seize the opportunity to protect wilderness while maintaining the goals of the test range and padding the school fund, to boot. Compromise and common sense would benefit all Utahns. We look forward to working on it.
Jen Ujifusa is the legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.