The politics of the possible

by Paul Larmer

In the late 1980s, Western wilderness activists began changing their tactics: Stymied by increasingly anti-environmental elected officials opposed to any new wilderness, they decided to bypass local politicians and "nationalize" the issue.

In Utah, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, they pushed "America's Redrock Wilderness Act," a bill that would protect a whopping 9.4 million acres of roadless lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Its main sponsors in Congress? New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey and Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, both Democrats.

But Tip O'Neill was right when he said, "All politics is local." Without support from Utah's elected officials, America's Redrock Wilderness Act has languished in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years. Activists have had to wage a defensive war to keep oil rigs and motorized vehicles out of roadless areas, with the notable exception of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by an executive order from President Clinton.

But, as Greg Hanscom reports in his cover story, there are hints of progress in the long-lasting stalemate over some of the world's most spectacular landscapes. They started in March, when conservative Utah Rep. Rob Bishop reached out to the leaders of a maturing wilderness movement. Any new legislation that comes from this process will be an obvious compromise, patched together by many disparate stakeholders. But as Ken Rait, a former SUWA staffer who now works on public-lands issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts, notes, wilderness bills have always involved a good deal of wheeling and dealing.

"Even the original 1964 Wilderness Act was a horse trade," says Rait, with compromises that allowed livestock grazing in designated wilderness, for example. In recent years, wilderness bills have included provisions to sell thousands of acres of federal land for development and guarantee timber harvests from national forests. Any new Utah wilderness bill, as Hanscom reports, will have to accommodate the powerful oil and gas industry.

Bishop's attempt to craft a wilderness bargain will fail if he doesn't wrangle a wide range of interests; he will also have to navigate a divided Congress that didn't pass a single wilderness bill last session and increasingly views all environmental issues through partisan lenses. Despite the long odds, many folks in Utah are ready to make a deal. Rait, who himself has made the transition from on-the-ground activist to pragmatic strategist, is optimistic that Utah can pull off what he calls "the politics of the possible."

Utah's activists should take heart that their painstakingly gathered inventory of wilderness-worthy lands will play a critical role in any negotiation, says Rait. "They've set the table.

"But we have to deal on wilderness in terms that are amenable to the state's congressional delegation," he adds. "That means that we will be taking small bites rather than taking it all at once."

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