Is this wilderness perverted?



Create a wilderness, stop a nuclear waste dump: It sounds like a crowd pleaser. Utah Rep. Jim Hansen's amendment to the Defense Authorization Act would establish about half a million acres of wilderness in western Utah, much of it near an active testing range for military aircraft (HCN, 5/27/02: Hansen pops a wheelie). It would also create wilderness in the Cedar Mountains, the proposed site of a rail spur that would carry high-level nuclear waste to the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation (HCN, 11/19/01: Nuclear storage site splinters Goshutes).

But many House Democrats and Utah wilderness advocates are outraged by Hansen's proposal.

"This would be, without hyperbole, the most perverted wilderness ever enacted into law," says Larry Young, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Young says that his group would "love to stop" the Goshute nuclear dump and would support a straightforward wilderness bill for the Cedar Mountains. But, he says, the Hansen amendment gives the Department of Defense control of access to the wilderness and power over management of the areas, making them "a de facto military withdrawal."

Bill Johnson, Hansen's legislative director, calls critics of the amendment "wilderness purists," and argues that there's no time for a stand-alone wilderness bill. Private Fuel Storage, the consortium of companies that wants to send waste to the reservation, expects to obtain final approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this fall, and Johnson says an amendment strapped to the defense bill has the best chance of intercepting the project.

"We know this bill is going to get passed by Congress, and we know it's going to the President," he says. "This is the train that's moving."

The amendment survived an attempt to strike it in the House Armed Services Committee, and the House version of the bill was approved on May 9. The Senate version of the bill, which does not include the amendment, is awaiting a floor vote.


Copyright © 2002 HCN and Michelle Nijhuis