« Return to this article

Know the West

Lame-duck governor moves deadlocked wilderness debate



The decades-old battle over how much of Utah’s desert should be protected as wilderness took a new turn in May, when Gov. Olene Walker, R, announced county-by-county discussions to break the impasse.

Utah has lagged behind other Western states in designating wilderness areas on Bureau of Land Management land: Of nearly 23 million acres of BLM land in Utah, only 22,600 acres are wilderness. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) wants 9.1 million acres, but such large-scale protection isn’t popular among Utah’s conservative congressional delegation, the state’s county commissioners, or off-road vehicle riders.

"Both sides have become polarized," Walker says. "We should break down that polarization."

Walker now presides over a lame-duck administration — she was eliminated from the governor’s race in this year’s Republican convention — but she says she still hopes to lay the groundwork for a future breakthrough. She has proposed working groups of 20 to 30 community representatives, including environmental and recreation activists, politicians, ranchers, school administrators, and state and federal agencies. These groups would work with the governor’s office to craft land-use proposals for the state’s congressional delegation.

Randy Johnson, the governor’s advisor on public lands, says the governor’s plan is based on the 2002 wilderness compromise forged in Clark County, Nev., home to Las Vegas, that set aside 452,000 acres of wilderness (HCN, 3/03/03: The Wild Card).

Washington County, in the rapidly developing southwestern corner of the state, volunteered to host the first working group in June. "Our concern is not their goal of 9.1 million acres," says County Commission Chairman James Eardley. "Today it’s 9.1 and tomorrow it’s some other number. But we need to get going on (the wilderness issue)."

SUWA will attend, says Scott Groene, the alliance’s executive director. Preserving red-rock wilderness, he says, will require an "accumulation of steps, including potentially this one."