Before Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, formally starts another shootout with Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, over how much wilderness to protect in Utah, he is trying to change the rules.
Hansen introduced a bill Thursday that would give states a sort of veto power over congressional wilderness decisions that they don't like.It would allow states to file a "notice of disapproval" and force Congress to reconsider its wilderness vote and either again reaffirm its initial decision or reduce the acreage.
Hansen supports designating no more than 1.4 million acres of wilderness on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Utah. His position is formally supported by the BLM, the Utah Legislature and most Republicans in the state.
But Owens wants much more wilderness - more than 5 million acres. His position is supported by state and national environmental groups and many high-powered Democrats in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Hansen's wilderness veto bill, if it could get through Democrats in Congress, would give more power to his backers in the state Legislature and cause more obstacles for Owens' friends in Congress. Hansen has attracted 13 co-sponsors so far. He has introduced similar measures before without success.
Hansen and Owens are expected to soon formally introduce bills calling for their differing desired amounts of wilderness.
Until some final wilderness decision is made, 3.2 million acres of Wilderness Study Area in Utah is treated as if it were already formal wilderness - which ranchers and miners have complained is closing off too much public acreage.
Hansen said Thursday that while he and the state Legislature are committed to designating no more than 1.4 million acres of wilderness, "It is possible that powerful special interests may succeed in designating much more than that.
"The state needs a safeguard to respond and protect its interests, which is what my legislation will provide."
Hansen, noting that the federal government controls nearly 70 percent of Utah land, said, "A federal land decision in most Eastern states has a nominal, at best, impact on the overall state economy. But in Utah, every step to lock away these lands tightens an economic noose."
He added that his bill is "about state's rights . . . about the right of a people to have a say in their destiny."
Owens' press secretary, Art Kingdom, said Owens has some question whether giving states a limited veto over congressional action is even constitutional.
Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, whose district contains much of the proposed wilderness, has not yet come down firmly on either side of the wilderness battle. But he and Owens are planning joint meetings throughout his district later this year to talk about wilderness on a property-by-property basis.