WASHINGTON – Republican legislators questioned Tuesday the logic behind designating federal lands as “wilderness areas” in a House subcommittee hearing on a Utah conservation bill.
The debate came about in response to the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act, which aims to protect more federal land in Utah for the sake of conservation and recreation. The bill, if passed, would take roughly 80,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service Land and give it a range of designations – everything from protected terrain to ski resort expansion space — while adding approximately 8,000 acres of wilderness area.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands, expressed concerns about the potential for forest fires when protected lands become overcrowded with wildlife, citing his own experiences with damaging fires in California.
“A lot of that is because we stop managing our forests — and wilderness designation makes it virtually impossible,” McClintock said.
McClintock called the history of land management “very troubling” and questioned whether the legislation offered a clear plan for the project’s effects on infrastructure such as transportation.
But the process will provide more details as the project moved forward to adapt to the region’s specific needs, said Glenn Casamassa, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Niki Tsongas, took a different approach, praising the bill on its ability to satisfy its many interest groups.
“It represents a locally-driven, consensus-based agreement that strengthens management of our public lands and fosters their multi-use mandate and advantages the people who rely on them for economic livelihoods,” Tsongas, D-Mass., said.
Tsongas said she hoped the legislation would inspire future plans to conserve natural lands with respect for local economies, calling it an example of how land management should not be an ideological battle.
The bill, sponsored by Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has the support of over 200 local stakeholders. Chaffetz, a conservative, who chairs the House Government and Oversight Committee, said his bipartisan measure has support across “the broadest political spectrum you could possibly imagine.”
McClintock said he agreed with the legislation’s goals, but expressed concerns about concessions to the “environmental left” at the expense of the implementation of other aspects of the bill.
“I’m highly skeptical that it’s going to be implemented as you think it’s going to be implemented,” McClintock said to the supporters.
Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, a group dedicated to the protection of the Wasatch mountain range, represented one of several Utah-based organizations that said their support for the bill came in part from their belief that the involved groups would work together for the region’s success.
“What needs to happen for the Wasatch doesn’t end with this legislation — it begins with this legislation,” Fisher said.