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Senate panel OKs San Rafael measure

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WASHINGTON — A bill to create a San Rafael National Conservation Area may not be dead after all.

Even though environmentalists shot it full of holes in the House and forced Utah sponsors to withdraw it from debate last month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed it unanimously Thursday.

"Rumors of its death, at least as far as the Senate is concerned, are greatly exaggerated," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

"Today's vote proves that this legislation, which would protect the beauty and history of striking sandstone cliffs and archaeological wonders in southern Utah, is still alive," he said.

The action Thursday allows the bill to now proceed to the full Senate for consideration.

When the full House considered the bill last month, environmentalists added several unfriendly amendments, including expanding Wilderness Study Areas in Utah by millions of acres.

With that, Reps. Chris Cannon and Jim Hansen, R-Utah, were forced to withdraw the measure or face passage of even more unfriendly amendments, if not outright defeat of the bill.

Afterward, Cannon said the bill was likely dead, although Hansen has held out hope of attaching it to other more popular bills. However, one such effort — where Hansen had temporarily held hostage other bills environmentalists wanted — ended this week without moving the bill in the House.

Still, Hatch said he hopes the fact that endorsement by the Clinton administration coupled with strong Senate support will overcome House opposition and move the bill through Congress this year.

Hatch said, "This bill will forever withdraw 1 million acres from oil, gas, mining or timber development and protect the area from abuse from off-road vehicle use."

The bill would create a 1 million-acre national conservation area.

Environmentalists have criticized it for not creating up front any formal wilderness areas there. The bill instead would create a multi-year process to develop land management plans, including how much should be designated wilderness.

While the Clinton administration has endorsed it as a fair way to protect the land amid wilderness battles, Cannon complained, "The administration did not deliver one Democratic vote in the House."