House passes bill to protect canyonlands on Utah-Colorado line

WASHINGTON (AP) - Nearly 200,000 federal acres of arid canyons and mesas along the Colorado-Utah line would have greater protection under a bill passed by the House on Tuesday.

The measure would create the 117,000-acre Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area along the Colorado River west of Grand Junction. Another 75,000 acres nearby would become the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness.

Both areas are dotted with archaeological sites and include dramatic arches and spires formed by centuries of wind and water.

Mining and oil drilling would be banned in the conservation area, but other activities such as river rafting, hiking and off-road vehicle use would be allowed. Vehicles and buildings are banned from wilderness areas, although the bill would allow grazing to continue in the Black Ridge Canyon area.

The House sent the measure to the Senate on a voice vote.

Colorado Republican Rep. Scott McInnis, whose district includes most of both areas, said he sponsored the bill to prevent a possible expansion of the neighboring Colorado National Monument. Although he compromised with the Interior Department to gain Clinton administration support, McInnis said the measure still protects Colorado's rights to water in the river and its tributaries.

''It protects Colorado water for Colorado people,'' McInnis said.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she hiked in the Black Ridge Canyon area last year and saw why it deserved to be preserved as wilderness. Residential development is already happening on private land nearby, DeGette said.

''I was really stunned to see the sublime natural beauty. It's really some of the finest of Colorado's canyon country,'' DeGette said. ''If we don't act now, we run the risk of having humanity overwhelm this beautiful, natural canyon.''

McInnis said he hoped the bill would serve as a model for land protection decisions in the West. He and other Western Republicans have bitterly complained about President Clinton's use of his authority to unilaterally create national monuments, which Clinton has done eight times in the West this year.

One of those monuments is the 164,000-acre Canyons of the Ancients, in McInnis' district. McInnis and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., dropped a national conservation area proposal for that land amid criticism from both environmentalists and land-use advocates.

''This is the way it should be handled. It should be handled on a bipartisan basis,'' McInnis said of the Colorado Canyons plan. ''Generations to come will look back at Colorado Canyons and say, 'Boy, whoever did that made a good decision.''' ---

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