Governor floats a wilderness bill

  • Heidi McIntosh

  In May, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt announced a 1 million-acre wilderness proposal for the West Desert, the latest step in what he calls an "incremental approach" for BLM lands. But while his proposal is supported by the Department of the Interior, it's drawing criticism from county politicians, and it's only a small part of the 9.1 million-acre bill championed by a coalition of 35 conservation groups in Utah.

Brad Barber, an aide to Leavitt, says the West Desert is a good choice for wilderness designation because it has "no historically large problems, no huge coal or mineral deposits and no serious controversy."

Still, there is an Air Force Training Range on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and Weber County Commissioner Ken Bischoff fears that tourists attracted to the wilderness will complain about noise, creating opposition that could lead to closing the base. Other commissioners say they'll support the proposal if it includes a guarantee that the base will stay open, a condition that the governor and Interior Department have promised to include in a forthcoming congressional bill.

The state's dominant environmental group, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, has not yet taken a stand on the governor's proposal, but Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for SUWA, says neither SUWA nor the Utah Wilderness Coalition supports a piecemeal approach to protecting roadless areas. Although Leavitt's proposal would not prevent future BLM wilderness designations, McIntosh says the group would rather see passage of an existing congressional bill, America's Redrock Wilderness Act (H.R. 1732) designating 9.1 million acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness in Utah.

Brad Barber says the proposal is still "in the concept phase" and the governor's office is willing to work with SUWA. "There is no doubt that SUWA has an influence on the future of the proposal."

*Keri Watson

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