Within hours of the announcement by Utah counties of their 1 million-acre wilderness recommendation (HCN, 4/17/95), I visited a special place touted in rural county tourist brochures as "Utah's Little Grand Canyon."
As the sun fell upon the western horizon, the Colorado Plateau light played its technicolor magic upon a slickrock face; to the southeast, clear as a bell though more than 100 miles distance, the La Sal Mountains towered above Moab.
Despite the splendor, all 200,000 wild acres of the northern San Rafael Swell were denied a wilderness recommendation by Emery County commissioners precisely because they want to keep open future options to ruin the air with nearby power plant emissions.
Like almost 5 million other acres not recommended for wilderness the lands' greatest values had become the death knell for for their permanent protection: Utah environmentalists have been demonized as being "extremist" because of our unwillingness to "compromise." But Utah's county commissioners recommended just 2 percent of the land in Utah for BLM wilderness designation. The citizens' proposal for 5.7 million acres would designate 10 percent. The commissioners' proposal would result in a net loss of roughly 70 percent of the currently protected BLM land in Utah.
I considered just some of the places left out of their recommendation and the rationale: King Top (proposed cyanide heap-leach gold mine), Parunuweap Canyon (dam construction), the entire Kaiparowits (coal development for export to Pacific Rim nations by a Dutch-owned coal company), the entire Henry Mountains (piûon and juniper chaining), the entire Dirty Devil River system (tar sands development), Grand Gulch and all of Cedar Mesa (who knows why ... does it matter?).
Just who is an extremist?
Where 16 million acres of roadless country existed just 60 years ago, just one-third that amount remains today. The history of southern Utah's rainbow-chasing has yielded little more than busted county economies interspersed with short booms, extensive federal handouts for grazing and logging, hatred of anything federal except for these handouts, and an atmosphere of resentment of protection-minded "outsiders." Exploitation-minded outsiders are welcomed as "insiders."
Fed by the rhetoric of the Utah Association of Counties, Utah Mining Association, Utah Petroleum Association, Utah Farm Bureau Federation and now Utah State University's chicken-little voodoo-economists, rural counties view wilderness as the boogey-man for all their unrelated problems.
Under the guise of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the commissioners did all they could to disqualify lands from their wilderness proposals. Horse trails and other substantially unnoticeable human impacts were used by the commissioners as excuses for excluding huge chunks of land from their proposals.
The commissioners never really considered "why wilderness," but instead were fixated with "why not wilderness," thereby missing the entire point of the act.
With their paltry recommendation, commissioners sealed the fate of their role in this debate as self-serving, short-sighted and inconsequential. Self-serving because they want to "deprotect" public lands to continue a history of rainbow-chasing. Short-sighted because they do not understand wilderness in reducing the discussion to dollars and cents. And inconsequential because their uncompromising positions will be viewed only with scorn as the battle becomes increasingly nationalized.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Ken Rait is issues director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.