Sierra Club: The Planet--July/August 1996
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The Planet
Join the Fight to Save Utah Wilderness

by William Corcoran

William Corcoran is a Sierra Club activist from Southern California who wants his daughter to one day enjoy Utah wilderness.

Nothing motivates an activist more than walking over threatened land. Last fall I was part of a group of Sierra Club members who did just that. We came from Illinois, Indiana, New York, New Jersey, California, Texas and New Mexico to join a Sierra Club activist outing to roadless areas in Utah that will be permanently opened to development if legislation introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) becomes law. While we admired Utah's autumnal foliage and enjoyed cool evenings graced by a waxing moon, we shared ideas about fighting S. 884 and H.R. 1745, bills that threaten Utah wilderness and the 1964 Wilderness Act itself.

One of our leaders was longtime Utah activist Jim Catlin, who coordinated the preparation of a 5.7 million-acre citizens' wilderness proposal that was introduced in Congress last fall by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) as H.R. 1500, America's Redrock Wilderness Act. Catlin detailed why so many remote, beautiful and ecologically important areas are stripped of protection under Hatch and Hansen's bill. Utah-based Sierra Club field representative Lawson LeGate helped Jim explain the political and administrative history of Utah wilderness.

A theme soon emerged from their stories. The Utah delegation wants two-thirds of some of America's greatest wilderness left unprotected in order to preserve the right of mining and energy companies to develop coal we don't need and uranium we don't want. They also aim to expand grazing "improvements" such as chaining, which rips out miles of pinyon and juniper forests to provide cattle forage.

All over Utah, we saw roadless areas held in a death grip by development schemes dreamed up by state politicians, county commissioners, extractive industries and the Bureau of Land Management. By encouraging the least sustainable uses of these fragile lands, Utah's delegation is writing off their state's need for a stable rural economy.

Wilds Worth Saving

At the San Rafael Knob, the highest point in the San Rafael Swell -- an area targeted for development by H.R. 1745/S. 884 -- we walked roads that were bladed by uranium miners in a successful ploy to force this area's deletion from wilderness consideration. We explored the high benchlands at the base of Bryce Canyon National Park, which H.R. 1745/S. 884 would delete from wilderness protection because of plans to strip mine for coal and chain pinyon and juniper stands for cattle forage -- all within view of the park.

At the Coral Pink Sand Dunes and the adjacent Moquith Mountain we saw plentiful evidence of off-road vehicle damage. Under H.R. 1745/S. 884, rare plant communities in the area would receive no protection from such damage. Heading west, we visited Utah's portion of the Great Basin Ecoregion, where we found tree-lined creeks and jagged granite slabs, outstanding vistas and an exhilarating remoteness. Utah's delegation aims to open two-thirds of the wilderness here to mining.

Hansen and Hatch's legislation threatens wilderness across the nation. Their nominal wilderness areas would allow dams, roads, motor vehicles and industrial infrastructure. Ultimately, they mean this to be a national precedent for challenging the Wilderness Act itself.


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