Battle for other state’s land in Congress when Illinois Senator wants Utah land

It’s a battle for other state’s land in Congress, without the consent of their legislators, again. 

On Monday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) refiled the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act which would designate 8.4 million acres of Utah land as wilderness, including some former land from the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.

However, none of the Utah congressional delegation signed on as co-sponsors. 

Some, like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) are retaliating.

On Thursday, they refiled the Shawnee Wilderness Area Designation Act of 2021, previously introduced by Romney and former Sen. Rob Bishop (R-UT), which would designate 289,000 acres of land in Illinois as wilderness.

Utah is home to acres of land rich in archaeological resources & numerous rare plant & animal species. These landscapes are valued access points for national parks & offer unparalleled research & education opportunities for Americans. Congress must act to protect this wilderness.

— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) May 10, 2021

“Senators in the East shouldn’t be telling people in the West what to do with our land,” Romney said in a press release. 

This isn’t a new fight in Congress but comes after months of debate about monument designations on millions of Utah acres.

ICYMI: Sec. Haaland visits Bears Ears, but plans only one hour for Grand Staircase-Escalante

“This bill has been around for as long as I’ve been in Congress,,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) said in a statement to The Spectrum. “Utah land cannot be adjusted without Utah’s input.”

Both Reps. Curtis and Stewart say they were not consulted in this latest bill and are “disappointed.”

“A senator from Illinois should not be bullying rural Utah, especially when he has land back home that needs protection,” Curtis said in a statement.

Romney and Curtis say Durbin’s bill “betrays an agreement to designate nearly one million acres in Emery County for multiple use, which was made as part of the Natural Resources Management Act, the public lands package signed into law in 2019.”

Upon introducing the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, Durbin released a statement saying the nation’s public lands are under pressure from land leasers and a congressional solution is the right one.

“Congress needs to act to ensure that these lands remain in their natural condition for current and future generations of Americans to enjoy,” Durbin said. 

The bill is currently co-sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

It is also supported by environmental advocacy group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, whose legislative director Jen Ujifusa said the bill would help stop climate change.

“America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act is more important than ever as we face the Climate Crisis and the Nature Crisis, as its passage would keep fossil fuels in the ground, preserve habitat connectivity and resiliency, and allow the desert lands to continue to sequester carbon, all while protecting the visual and cultural resources contained on the land for generations to come,” Ujifusa said.

SUWA cites a 2020 study showing how designating more land as wilderness, protecting it from oil and gas drilling, in the continental United States could slow climate change.

It would also help the country reach its 30×30 goal promoted by the Biden administration, which seeks to conserve 30% of the world’s land by 2030. According to SUWA, the passage of this bill would conserve 1.5% of that goal.

“Utah lags all other Western states in wilderness designation, despite having some of the wildest roadless landscapes in the lower 48 states,” a statement from SUWA said.

However, Utah legislators won’t let this alleged “land grab” stand.

“So long as Senator Durbin continues to introduce his bill, we will continue to introduce ours,” Romney said in a statement. 

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at [email protected] Donate to Report for America here.

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