While writer Terry Tempest Williams spoke about the need for wild places, a jar was passed among the crowd until it was stuffed with bills; sign-up sheets were filled with names of people willing to write letters to the editor.
It was an emergency meeting called by the Utah Wilderness Coalition to organize against what members perceive as an assault on Utah's magnificent redrock wilderness - millions of acres of roadless lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
When the Republicans swept Congress last November, Utah environmentalists worried that such an attack was just around the corner. Their fears were confirmed Jan. 2, when Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt and Utah's five-member congressional delegation announced they intended to resolve the decade-long wilderness debate once and for all.
What concerned environmentalists most was the delegation's insistence that any final wilderness proposal must be "supported by the local communities where each wilderness designation will be located." Many local communities rely on the public lands for much of their livelihoods and have not supported more wilderness or greater federal presence.
"It's like putting the fox in charge of the hen house," said Washington County resident Logan Hebner.
Gov. Leavitt has directed each of the 13 county commissions in rural Utah affected by wilderness proposals to recommend by April 1 which areas within their borders should be designated wilderness. He also told them that designating no wilderness is not an option. After recommendations are in, the governor and delegation will hold five regional public hearings in the state, then draft a bill for introduction to Congress by June 1.
Many Utah environmentalists say the plan is nothing more than a quick-and-dirty attempt at rushing a minimalist wilderness bill through Congress while the anti-environment fervor in Washington, D.C., holds out.
"That's simply not right," says Brad Barber, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget. "The governor and delegation are very much interested in good input. There's no way that anything has been predetermined on the outcome."
Public meetings held in late February and early March showed that support for wilderness varies from county to county. Anti-wilderness sentiment dominated the meetings in Garfield and Kane counties (in the Lake Powell region). "It's my opinion that as little wilderness we designate, the better off we'll be," said Dale Baldwin, an official for the town of Panguitch, population 1,444. Pro-wilderness views dominated in Washington and Grand counties (St. George and Moab, respectively), while the viewpoints in Emery County west of Moab were evenly split.
Recent public-opinion polls conducted by both Salt Lake newspapers found more positive views. In December, the Deseret News reported that 77 percent of Utahns want wilderness, with 41 percent wanting more than 2 million acres. A Salt Lake Tribune poll in February showed 73 perecent of Utahns in favor of wilderness, with 31 percent wanting an acreage figure close to 5.7 million.
The Utah Wilderness Coalition, composed of 35 local and national environmental groups, would like to see no less than 5.7 million acres of BLM land designated as wilderness. That proposal has emerged in a bill sponsored by New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D, who took over the bill for former Utah Rep. Wayne Owens.
H.R. 1500, nicknamed "America's Redrock Wilderness Bill," is the coalition's response to what it believes is a flawed wilderness inventory and recommendation from the BLM.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the BLM inventoried its 22 million acres of land in Utah and concluded that only 2.4 million acres were worthy of Wilderness Study Area status, which guarantees their protection until Congress designates permanent wilderness.
Environmentalists filed an appeal, saying at least 925,000 acres were wrongly deleted from consideration. The BLM added about 800,000 acres to the WSAs for a total of 3.2 million, but of these, the agency recommended that Congress designate only about 2 million for wilderness. Environmentalists say the agency proposal is woefully inadequate.
For example, in the magnificent San Rafael region, which was once considered for a national park, the BLM has proposed 243,000 acres for wilderness. The wilderness coalition urges 753,000. In Desolation Canyon and Book Cliffs, one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48, the agency has proposed 328,000 acres. The coalition proposes 719,000 acres.
Not all environmental groups support the coalition's 5.7 million-acre proposal, a fact that could undermine environmentalists' cause in this year's frenzied debate. Coalition members criticized the Utah Wilderness Association for supporting the 1984 Utah Wilderness Act, which set aside what they consider a meager 800,000 acres of Forest Service lands. If the association endorses a "bad" BLM wilderness bill this year, members of Congress may believe it has the entire environmental community's support, coalition members say.
Dick Carter of the Utah Wilderness Association says his group will not endorse a bill that fails to protect entire ecosystems in southern Utah. Some smaller, isolated areas, however, may be sacrificed, he says.
No one knows how big the acreage in this year's county-driven bill will be. But environmentalists suspect it will be no bigger than legislation already drafted by the state's lone Democratic congressman, Bill Orton. His bill, which has not been introduced in deference to the current process, calls for 1.2 million acres of wilderness and 1.8 million acres of "national conservation areas," which provide for some road-building and development.
If and when Utah's wilderness debate reaches Congress, environmentalists will find few friends in high places. The chairman of the House (Natural) Resources Committee is Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and the chairman of the subcommittee on public lands is Utah's Jim Hansen, R. Both men consistently earn near-zero ratings from the National League of Conservation Voters.
* Brent Israelsen
The writer reports for The Deseret News in Salt Lake City.