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Pressure on to open public lands for drilling

Sunday, July 15, 2007

By Scott Richardson

BLOOMINGTON -- John Wesley Powell, the famous naturalist who once taught at both Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities, is a link between Bloomington-Normal and one of America's last remaining wilderness areas in the lower 48 states.

After a gunshot wound in the Civil War left him with one arm, Powell explored the rugged Red Rock region of southern Utah with nine others in 1869. Their path led them down the Green River to the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon.

The wide-open spaces of Utah offer spectacular sunsets, such as this one near Goblin Valley State Park in southern Utah. (Pantagraph/Lenore Sobota)
They traveled through what is now Canyonlands National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

Each of those natural areas enjoys some measure of protection because of its status as parkland. But Berwyn activist Clayton Daughenbaugh has concerns.

Surrounding the parks are millions of acres of federally owned land that is home to several endangered species plus elks, mountain lions, antelopes, bison and bighorn sheep.

They're in danger from pressure to open the public lands to oil and natural gas drilling, unregulated use of off-road vehicles and -- believe it or not -- urban sprawl. St. George, Utah is one of the fast-growing towns in the United States, and some officials there want to sell off public land to raise money for infrastructure improvements to allow more growth.

Daughenbaugh is Midwest field organizer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, chairman of the Sierra Club National Wild Lands Committee and co-chairman of the Illinois Task Force for Utah Wilderness.

"Red Rock is one of the most spectacular lands in the world," he said. "But when you are in a national park and looking out on a clear day over hundreds of miles, most of what you see isn't protected."

In light of Powell's footprint on the area, Daughenbaugh thinks it's fitting for Illinois' senior U.S. senator, Democrat Dick Durbin to be chief sponsor of a bill pending in Congress to further protect nearly 10 million acres currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Red Rock Wilderness Act would halt any thoughts of gas and oil drilling or mining. The proposal also would lead to the establishment of guidelines for recreational use, including limits on off-road vehicles that could harm sensitive ecosystems. An identical bill has been introduced in the House, where U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, an Urbana Republican, is a supporter.

Without a law, nothing stops the bureau from selling or leasing land or building roads.

Similar legislation has been introduced in the past, but it stalled during the process. Daughenbaugh said the transfer of control of Congress to Democrats in the 2006 election makes passage this year more than a possibility.

"We are excited," Daughenbaugh said. "It's not at all automatic, but we're going to work hard, and we think we're going to make some real progress in this Congress. But we need our locals (senators and representatives) to step on board."

Johnson has co-sponsored previous bills to save Red Rock. U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican, became a co-sponsor of the legislation for the first time this year. Democratic presidential contender and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama has indicated a willingness to support the measure when it comes to a vote.

Critics argue the wilderness designation would stymie the economic benefits the land can give. But Daughenbaugh sees that issue in another light.

"There are different visions of how you develop a community in the long term. There is a long run net economic gain in protecting these places. There is a long run net economic loss to destroying these places. Mineral extraction and sprawl are built on the destruction of the land. It lasts the lifetime of a generation. But if you build on the protection of the land, people will come for years. You're building the economy on something that is going to last forever," he said.

Daughenbaugh was once a community organizer in busy Chicago neighborhoods. A hiker and camper, he gravitated toward the fight to preserve wild places.

"It was a natural for me. You don't protect special places, wild places, unless citizens are involved. That's democracy. That's how we do things in this country. People need to be engaged," he said.

The scenic Red Rock region holds a special place in his heart. He saw it for the first time with his wife as they drove from New Mexico to Yellowstone National Park to meet his in-laws for a vacation in the early 1990s.

The experience left him breathless.

"It was, 'Oh, my gosh, we are going to have to come back here.' It turned out that was just a taste of what was out there. We knew there was something spectacular, and we are going to have to go back," he said.

Later, they visited places like Moabe, Utah, and Arches National Park with their son, Luke, who took some of his first steps there.

Daughenbaugh enlisted in the battle to save the region after visiting Red Rock with the Sierra Club in 1995.

It was a visit that also sold Durbin on giving the area added protections, noting the importance of its archeological sites and habitat for rare plant and animal species. He also pointed out the land has economic value to hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts just as it is.

Daughenbaugh said a wilderness designation would put a priority on the "natural process" as well as recreation, including bike riding, hiking, hunting and fishing. Motorized vehicles would be outlawed.

The only permitted commercial activity would be outfitters guiding clients.

"You don't build structures. Nature takes priority in a wilderness area," he said.

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