Eighty-nine House members sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to protect 9.4 million acres of red rocks lands in Utah while Congress works on legislation.
The letter sent Tuesday also asks Salazar to rescind an agreement reached between the Bush administration and the state of Utah that prevents the Bureau of Land Management from designating new wilderness study areas. The wilderness study designation discourages uses of the land that might alter its natural character.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat sponsoring the Utah wilderness bill, said that a consensus has developed that millions of acres within the state should be protected even if there remains disagreement on how to do that.
"It makes sense for the Interior Department to step in and temporarily protect these lands while Congress and state officials sort out the best way to protect these precious acres for this and future generations of Americans to enjoy and admire," Hinchey said in a statement. "These are the very scenic lands that the previous administration hoped to turn into off-road vehicle playgrounds and oil and gas fields.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Salazar, said the department is reviewing the letter.
The bill has 151 co-sponsors, but only seven are Republicans. It is opposed by the Utah congressional delegation, who say decisions on which lands should receive the protective wilderness designation are best made locally.
"Since they can't achieve their goal of locking up millions of acres of western land through an open and transparent democratic process, they're now trying to use back door, undemocratic rules and regulations to lock up public lands," Rep Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a statement. "If Congressman Hinchey was serious about protecting lands in Utah, he should try to work with Utahans instead of trying to go around us."
At a hearing before a House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee last month, some witnesses from Utah said the bill would prevent development of the lands, hurting the state's economy. However, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and a Utah outdoors equipment maker told the subcommittee that protecting the lands will draw more visitors to the state, boosting the economy.
The red rocks wilderness bill, as the legislation is known, was first introduced in 1989 by the late Wayne Owens, a former Democratic congressman from Utah. Hinchey has been reintroducing the bill every two years since Owen left Congress in 1993.