When Utah's congressional delegation announced almost a year ago that it would introduce a bill designating BLM wilderness, environmentalists in the state were shocked.
They knew they faced a potentially disastrous
alignment of political planets: Republican majorities in both
houses of Congress, a right-wing congressional delegation
determined to "solve" the wilderness "problem," and a president
with a record of capitulation to the Western voting
In grim meetings last January and
February, Utah Wilderness Coalition leaders made two commitments.
They would urge supporters to participate in the delegation's
wilderness review process. But if the delegation's wilderness bill
opened far more land to development than it would protect as
wilderness, they would fight to kill it.
coalition held a meeting for supporters in Salt Lake City in
mid-February, and 500 people filled the meeting hall to capacity,
overflowing into a bitterly cold winter night.
The crowd was restive, vocal, eager for action. Two plastic buckets
passed hand-to-hand around the room returned stuffed with over
$1,000 in cash.
Encouraged, the coalition hired
a full-time organizer to recruit volunteers and coordinate their
work. By June, the coalition's activist database contained more
than 700 names. It would grow to 1,200 by summer's end, while the
number of UWC member organizations boomed from 34 to
Volunteers produced and distributed 800
copies of a 40-page Utah Wilderness Activist Handbook. They set up
an Internet web site and created an "Adopt a Wilderness' program to
recruit teams of advocates for each of 13 regions in their
proposal. A petition drive led by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
teams contacted over 30,000 people in 10 Utah cities, securing
16,000 signatures in support of the coalition
In preparation for the final round of
wilderness hearings in mid-April, volunteers staffed two phone
banks which ran simultaneously on weekday evenings for over a
month. Over a two-month period the coalition sent out 10,000 pieces
of direct mail and telephoned over 8,000 people to turn out
supporters for county and regional wilderness hearings. It also
organized car pools and chartered buses.
wilderness opponents claimed in hearings that lands within the
coalition's proposal lacked wilderness character because they
contained roads, mines, cabins and other human impacts, volunteers
responded within days by obtaining maps showing the alleged impacts
and mobilizing photo-reconnaissance teams to investigate their
existence, location and condition. With a flourish of over-the-top
enthusiasm, one group of 30 volunteers, led by Salt Lake City
chemist Will McCarville, surveyed every mile of alleged road within
the proposed 750,000-acre San Rafael Swell wilderness and produced
an 800-page report detailing its findings.
June 1, it was apparent that the Utah congressional delegation's
attempt to "balance" public comment by situating public hearings in
rural Utah had not worked. Statewide, 69 percent of the written and
oral public comment endorsed the coalition's 5.7 million acre
proposal; an additional 20 percent favored wilderness designation
without naming a specific proposal. Only 6 percent supported the 1
million acre proposal of the county commissioners. Even in
"regional" hearings held in small-town southern Utah, 40 to 70
percent of the speakers had endorsed the coalition
Utahns now watched with
After its elaborate show of soliciting
public comment, the delegation found itself impaled on the horns of
a nasty dilemma. Instead of creating one test of public opinion, it
had created two. Instead of receiving one opinion, it had received
two radically different opinions.
On one side
stood the accountants, medical technicians, computer programmers,
businessmen, scientists, school teachers, nurses, college students,
high school students, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers
and small children who had spoken for the majority supporting the
5.7 million acre wilderness proposal. On the other side stood the
county commissioners of rural Utah.
Now the Utah
congressional delegation had to decide on which side of the line it
would stand. If the delegation's wilderness bill designated
significantly more than the 1 million acres of wilderness
recommended by the county commissioners, there could be hell to
pay, not only with the commissioners but with ideological allies
throughout the West and in the Congress. If the bill designated
significantly less than the 5.7 million acres endorsed by the
majority, the public would believe that the Utah delegation had
forsaken the public interest on behalf of a bunch of county
On June 6, the Utah delegation
held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to unveil its
wilderness bill. It was immediately clear that while the bill
appeared to recommend 1.8 million acres for wilderness, in
actuality the delegation had chosen to stand with the county
The "Utah Public Lands Act of
1995" (H.R. 1745/S.884) would leave open to development nearly 4
million acres of roadless BLM land in Utah. The bill would release
from "interim management protection" nearly half of the 3.2 million
acres of BLM wilderness study areas where development has been
forbidden until Congress enacted a wilderness
The bill also contained "hard release"
language prohibiting the BLM from managing any non-wilderness lands
so as to preserve their potential for future wilderness
designation. The BLM was also prohibiting from studying or
recommending lands for wilderness designation.
The bill further stipulated that the BLM must manage all 20 million
acres of non-wilderness BLM land in Utah "for the full range of
nonwilderness multiple uses'- an invitation to would-be developers
to argue in court that any management restriction which would have
the incidental effect of preserving wilderness character was
forbidden by the act.
Finally, while the bill
would designate 1.8 million acres of wilderness in tracts scattered
across the state, a host of special provisions would allow
vehicular access, low-level military overflights, and the
construction of roads, dams, reservoirs, powerlines, pipelines,
communications facilities, even within areas designated as
wilderness by the act.
Reaction from Utah
environmentalists was swift: They called the bill a zoning master
plan for commercial and industrial development in the heart of
every large BLM roadless area in the
"The bill mocks the
concept of wilderness," said former Utah congressman Wayne Owens,
now chairman of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's board of
directors, in a letter to the Deseret News.
In the blaze of publicity surrounding the Utah
delegation's bill, it is easy to overlook the other wilderness
bill-H.R. 1500, "America's Redrock Wilderness Act," which would
protect 5.7 million acres.
in 1989 by Rep. Owens, H.R. 1500 had acquired over 100 co-sponsors
by 1992 when Owens left Congress after losing a Senate race. No
member of the Utah congressional delegation was willing to
reintroduce the bill. Instead, SUWA lobbyist Cindy Shogan recruited
New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey to reintroduce H.R. 1500 in 1993 and
again in 1995. With each new Congress, coalition supporters have
painstakingly rebuilt the co-sponsor base. As of this writing, the
bill has 103 co-sponsors in the House.
1500 has never been reported out of its House subcommittee. And
after nearly seven years of intense searching, environmentalists
have failed to find a single senator willing to sponsor the bill:
H.R. 1500 does not exist in the Senate.
principal obstacle in the senate is "senatorial courtesy'- the
reluctance of senators to meddle with another state's issues. Press
reports suggesting that Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of
the Senate Judiciary Committee, will hold hostage federal judgeship
appointments have probably also helped to cool any ardor for H.R.
By comparison, H.R. 1745/S. 884 had
massive backing: four of the state's five representatives and both
of its senators. The delegation's bill moved ahead in the House,
seemingly unaffected by all the work against it. In the House, it
was shepherded by Utah's Jim Hansen, chairman of the House
Subcommittee on Public Lands and National Parks.
It whipped through congressional field hearings and subcommittee
markup in six weeks. On Aug. 2, it blew through the full House
Energy and Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Don Young of
Alaska, on a 23-8 vote.
But then it hit the full
House on Dec. 14 and suffered a startling setback, unexpected by
both environmentalists and by the Utah delegation (see story on
Hardly anyone thinks the delegation's
bill is dead, but predictions that the bill would move easily
through the House have been proven wrong.
bill's progress through the Senate, shepherded by Hatch and Sen.
Robert Bennett, has been slower. But at the same time, it has not
suffered the kind of reverse experienced in the House. The bill has
been endorsed by the Energy and Resources Committee and should go
to the Senate floor in 1996.
The third player is
the White House. Environmentalists hope that, if necessary,
President Clinton will veto the delegation's bill. Interior
officials announced that Secretary Bruce Babbitt would recommend a
veto if the bill were to pass "in its present form." They stressed
that hard release language was unacceptable. But in recent weeks,
press reports have suggested that the Utah delegation may be
willing to give up hard release language. Such a last-minute
concession might grease the skids for the bill both in the Senate
and in the White House.
Faced a few months ago with what seemed like a juggernaut, the Utah
Wilderness Coalition, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, launched a nationwide
campaign. Volunteers descended in waves upon Capitol Hill. Four
groups of supporters from Utah and other states each spent a week
on the Hill, with each group visiting over 100 congressional
offices. Still more advocates have made individual visits to
congressional offices throughout the year. Among the pilgrims was
actor Robert Redford, a Utah resident, who reportedly met with 20
senators in a single day in mid-July.
and September, three national environmental groups mailed nearly
150,000 special alerts to their most active supporters in key
congressional districts throughout the country, asking for letters
and phone calls to congressional offices about the Utah wilderness
SUWA carried the
campaign to other fronts. The group drafted retiring executive
director Brant Calkin to undertake the equivalent of the
traditional Mormon mission, and Calkin barnstormed America in a
beat-up 1977 Volkswagen van, carrying the Utah wilderness gospel to
over 120 cities in 24 states. Calkin's bible was a dual-projector
slide show; baptism consisted of writing letters to congressional
offices, and signing up to participate in a nationwide network of
grassroots "Wilderness Warriors."
recruited grassroots supporters one handshake at a time, the public
relations firm of Vanguard Communications, retained by SUWA,
coordinated a nationwide media air-war. Former BLM director Jim
Baca, now a SUWA board member and Wilderness Society staff member,
began a national press tour in August while Vanguard pumped out
press kits and fed the Utah wilderness story to
Stories about the Utah wilderness
dispute have appeared in at least a half dozen nationally
distributed newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times,
the Washington Post, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Country
Living and USA Weekend, while editorials critical of the 1.8
million acre Utah wilderness bill have appeared in at least 30
newspapers from Maine to California.
of the editorial copy suggests that H.R. 1745/S. 884 has been
taking a brutal beating: The Santa Fe New Mexican: "The bill is
about Utah, but if it becomes federal law, New Mexico and the rest
of the West will soon hear bulldozers and blasting throughout our
The Kansas City Star: "Congress
needs to stop this destructive proposal dead in its tracks."
The Cleveland Plain Dealer: "House Republicans
are about to perpetrate a massive sellout of the public interest in
a spectacular corner of the West."
Moines Register: "How ironic that the congressional delegation
closest to the beauty of southern Utah should be so eager to
The Washington Post: "It is a sign
of the land-ravenous times, as well as the brazenness of commercial
exploiters and their Utah friends Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F.
Bennett in the Senate, that preserving 5.7 million acres out of 22
million is opposed."
By mid-summer, some
congressional offices had begun to feel the effect of the national
campaign. New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's press secretary, for
example, estimates the senator has received 1,500 to 2,000 letters
and calls, while Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell has
reportedly been inundated with over 3,000. Representatives in the
House did not receive the same volume of mail and calls, but they
too were lobbied hard, with the campaign peaking in the fall and
Now we must wait until 1996 to see
the results of the Utah delegation's determination, on the one
hand, to push its bill through matched against the massive media
and lobbying activity expended by Utah's wilderness activists.
The stakes go beyond Utah's
If Utah environmentalists succeed in
stopping the Utah delegation's wilderness bill, they will have
scored a profound victory. If they fail, the Utah Wilderness bill
will set a devastating precedent for future wilderness
Stories in this
issue on Utah wilderness were paid for by the High Country News