Last week, Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee introduced a bill that would create a massive “withdrawal” zone across Bureau of Land Management lands, effectively expanding the operational footprint of the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). The training range in Utah’s West Desert is used by the Army, Air Force and Marines for operational exercises, and is off limits to the general public; the new withdrawal zone would be periodically closed to the public.
We’ve seen this bill before when Sen. Hatch attempted to attach it to national defense legislation in 2014, but it’s only gotten worse over time. S. 2383 would abandon bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, imperil future wilderness designations for places like the Newfoundland Mountains, Deep Creek Mountains and Dugway Mountains, and facilitate a land exchange to accelerate development in areas proposed for wilderness.
The bill also would transfer road rights-of-way to Box Elder, Juab and Toole counties. We don’t yet know which roads—we’re working on tracking down the maps–but we do know these counties have sued to get the so-called RS-2477 rights-of-way to thousands of miles of bogus two-tracks and cow paths across federal lands, including through designated and proposed wilderness. An earlier draft of the legislation referred specifically to those types of routes as the kind that would be summarily gifted to counties.
Speaking of gifts, the legislation includes a nice piece of window dressing: an advisory “Community Resource Group” that specifically calls for six special slots for county commissioners, seats for off-roaders, recreationists and livestock grazers, but no such reserved voice for conservation. The handpicked advisory group then faces the exhausting task of meeting “not less than once per year.”
Protecting national security in no way needs to come at the expense of protecting America’s precious public lands heritage. In 2006 we worked successfully with Rep. Rob Bishop on designating the Cedar Mountains Wilderness adjacent to the training range. When the bill passed, it was praised by the Utah delegation as a win-win for the UTTR and for wilderness, and Pentagon officials see wilderness as a complementary and desirable “buffer zone” near military facilities. Instead of using this opportunity to protect wilderness and accommodate the needs of our armed forces, the Utah senators are using national security as an excuse for yet another public lands giveaway.