Babbitt takes the offensive on Utah wilderness

  • Cartoon: Wilderness, more and less

    Pat Bagley/Salt Lake Tribune
  At a wilderness hearing last spring, Utah Rep. James Hansen challenged Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to find 5 million acres of BLM land in Utah that qualify for wilderness designation.


Now that competing Utah wilderness bills are dormant in Congress, Babbitt has taken him up.


The Interior boss has assembled "a small team of career professionals' to conduct a partial wilderness re-inventory. The team will evaluate those lands within the Utah Wilderness Coalition's 5.7 million-acre proposal that failed to qualify under the BLM's inventory, conducted in the late 1970s.


"To date, both sides have been unable even to agree which lands have wilderness characteristics," says Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "A re-inventory should help move this contentious issues toward a resolution."


Utah's congressional delegation disagrees. Hansen, along with senators Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett, called Babbitt's move "pure politics," and accused the secretary of having "a set acreage target." The delegation's bill asked for 1.8 million acres.


"This is to simply decide what will qualify, not to make a recommendation," says Don Banks of the BLM office in Utah. He characterized the planned operation as "ground-truthing with field personnel." The team will be led by Bob Abbey, BLM's assistant director for Colorado. Work should begin sometime in September.


"We need to put the inventory question to rest," Banks said. "Something is needed to move this process along. Right now, nothing's moving."


*Jared Farmer