On a frozen night in mid-February, about 300 people crammed into an art gallery in Salt Lake City for an old-fashioned rally.
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
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
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.
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
"It's like putting the fox in
charge of the hen house," said Washington County resident Logan
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
The writer reports
for The Deseret News in Salt Lake