Utah finds 3 million more wild acres

  • New game of Utah Monopoly

    Pat Bagley/The Salt Lake Tribune

Equipped with an old Jeep Cherokee 4x4 and a stack of large-scale topographical maps, Kevin Walker spent two years combing southern Utah. He was looking for wild, unprotected tracts of Bureau of Land Management land that might have been left out of a coalition's wilderness proposal.

His team - Walker helped lead the citizens' inventory (HCN, 8/4/97) - succeeded beyond its expectations. But Walker says he also learned that maps don't always tell the truth.

Sometimes he found jeep trails and stock tanks where the map indicated junipers and an intermittent stream. Near Glen Canyon, volunteers discovered an eight-mile road bulldozed into the desert, eliminating the area from further wilderness consideration. But mostly, when the map wasn't accurate, it was because time had obliterated or faded a two-track road.

Walker was helped by 350 volunteers from Utah and elsewhere. Some of their finds: Past inventories didn't include Utah's portion of the Great Basin, where "whole mountain ranges were left out," says Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the state's major environmental group and a part of the 156-member Utah Wilderness Coalition. In central Utah, what's known as the Price Canyon Unit was once thought to be 30,000 roadless acres. After the inventory, it grew to 100,000 acres.

Then, on July 10, in a packed auditorium at the University of Utah where a rock band played and the mood was festive, the Utah Wilderness Coalition announced the inventory results to 700 supporters - not 5.7 but 8.5 million acres was the starting point for a new wilderness bill. Rep. Merrill Cook, a Republican from Salt Lake City, showed up, too, to voice support for more wilderness. The event was in sharp contrast to nine years ago, when wilderness proponents announced their first wilderness bill to a handful of supporters and a few reporters in a quiet city park.

Not everyone trusts the results of the citizens' inventory. Last month's announcement has brought the state's contentious wilderness debate back to life.

"No one's surprised that when the wilderness advocates go out looking for wilderness they find any," says Sheldon Kinsel of Heber City, Utah, who sometimes consults for the Utah Association of Counties. "If you go out looking for wilderness and your standards are low enough, you can go out and find it everywhere but a rowcrop field."

Wilderness opponents say that a strict interpretation of an 1866 federal law known as R.S. 2477 rules out designating many of these lands as wilderness. Even if a road that appeared on a map long ago has now disappeared, the Utah Association of Counties argues that a county still has the right to bulldoze what had become a right-of-way.

"Roads can reappear and there's nothing the BLM can do about it," Kinsel says.

Environmentalists admit the law must be reckoned with. "It's a sticking point and it is a threat," says Heidi McIntosh, a SUWA attorney. But it's also "a ludicrous interpretation of the law, and I don't think it will stand up."

All or nothing

The wilderness movement in Utah has successfully challenged its opponents before. It beat back legislation supported by the Utah delegates that would have preserved only 1.8 million acres as wilderness while opening 20 million acres to development.

Until it happened, few had thought the Republican-controlled 104th Congress would quash a wilderness bill authored by one of its own, Rep. Jim Hansen (HCN, 12/25/95).

"And they were wrong," Groene says. "It taught Utah activists that there's no end to what we can accomplish." He says a new bill, calling for the preservation of as much as 8.5 million acres, could be introduced in the next session of Congress. Once again, however, the Utah Congressional delegation is staunchly opposed to environmentalists' wilderness proposals.

"Obviously, it can be difficult to get it by Utah senators," Groene says.

But the wilderness movement in Utah has generated support elsewhere. The 5.7 million-acre wilderness bill now before Congress has 140 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 12 sponsors in the Senate. Though wilderness supporters have been quietly garnering votes for years, neither side has mustered enough votes to break the gridlock. Meanwhile, dedicated activists continue to push their strategy.

Wilderness supporters conducted their inventory without help from the BLM. They paid for full-page ads in newspapers across the nation, and a cross-country road tour to spread the word about the new inventory is in the works.

Bill Hedden of Moab, a former Grand County commissioner, says, the wilderness proponents have a "single-minded focus' that goes something like this: "It's the most special place you ever saw and it's going to be wrecked before you ever get out here to see it."

"And it works. They can pretty much count on support," he says.

Signs of support

So far, only first-term Rep. Cook has spoken out for wilderness - though not for any specific proposal - and some of his traditional Republican allies in Utah are wondering what's gotten into him. He told a Utah Wilderness Coalition gathering last month that he would not support controversial legislation authored by Rep. Chris Cannon, known as the San Rafael Swell National Heritage/Conservation Area Act (HCN, 6/8/98).

"To be honest with you, I think he got poor advice," says Mark Walsh, associate director of the Utah Association of Counties, a group that supports the San Rafael Swell legislation.

The bill would designate 130,000 acres of wilderness while opening to development another 130,000 acres now in a wilderness study area. An additional 600,000 acres that environmentalists want preserved would also be left open to development.

Hedden says Cook's recent statement shouldn't be a surprise. "Whoever holds that (Salt Lake City) seat realizes very quickly that on the Wasatch Front, protecting a lot of wilderness is a pretty popular thing."

The Utah Wilderness Coalition uses Cook's support for wilderness protection to illustrate how Republicans in Utah are fracturing over the Utah wilderness issue, hoping it will open the door for other members of the GOP in Washington to sign on. But their critics argue that the 8.5 million-acre inventory is political: "They want to make 5.7 million acres look like a more reasonable number," Kinsel says.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance insists the inventory simply tallied the roadless lands managed by the BLM. "The final number had nothing to do with political strategy," Groene says. "We've had one principle: We want to protect what's left."

- Dustin Solberg, HCN assistant editor

You can contact ...

* Mark Walsh, Utah Association of Counties, 4021 South 700 East, Suite 180, Salt Lake City, UT 84107 (801/265-1331);

* Tom Price, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 1471 South 1100 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84105 (801/486-3161);

* www.utahwilderness.com, a site maintained by wilderness opponents;

* www.suwa.org, the site of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

* Utah Wilderness Coalition's Ken Venables, 1390 South 1100 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84105 (801/486-2872).

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