Battle likely over Utah wilderness


As expected, Utah's Republican delegation has introduced a wilderness bill covering portions of the state's spectacular canyon country. And as expected, Utah environmentalists hate it.

HR 1745 designates wilderness in 49 areas, totaling 1.8 million acres. Most areas are small parcels, ranging between 7,000 and 90,000 acres. The largest include Desolation Canyon on the Green River (254,000 acres), Fifty-Mile Mountain (121,000 acres) and North Escalante Canyons (103,000 acres).

"Our bill captures those areas that are well-known to Utahns and most Americans," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We are trying to protect the crown jewels in Utah that are truly wilderness."

The bill totals 800,000 acres more than what rural county commissioners have suggested, but about 3.9 million acres less than what environmentalists want. It's also 1.4 million acres less than what's currently being protected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as wilderness study areas.

"The Utah delegation vacilates between hating wilderness and simply not understanding it," said Ken Rait, spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA is part of the Utah Wilderness Coalition, a group of 45 local and national groups pushing for 5.7 million acres of wilderness.

Though the bill's acreage figure is "abominable," its language is far more dangerous, according to George Nickas, spokesman for the Utah Wilderness Association, which sought a compromise plan of 3 million acres.

For example, HR 1745 would release all areas not designated wilderness in Utah to multiple use. Such "hard releases' open to mining and road-building 1.4 million acres of lands that now enjoy protection as wilderness study areas. The bill also allows construction of reservoirs, transmission lines, roads and "other facilities needed in the public interest" in four wilderness areas in southwest Utah.

The legislation is expected to coast through the House, mainly because of Utah Rep. Jim Hansen's clout as chair of the public lands subcommittee. It may be amended, however, to include an additional 300,000 acres at the suggestion of Rep. Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah, whose urban congressional district is the most environmentally minded in the state. Rep. Bill Orton, Utah's sole Democrat in Congress, says he may try to reduce the wilderness acreage in favor of "national conservation areas," an idea that hasn't attracted many supporters.

The biggest fight will be in the Senate, where a filibuster is likely. As with much of the environmental legislation going through Congress now, the final hope for environmentalists is a presidential veto. The Clinton administration has been mum on Utah wilderness.

Two field hearings on HR 1745 were held last week. A final hearing is scheduled for June 29, in Washington, D.C. Hansen said he expects his bill to go to the House floor by the end of the month.

For more information about HR 1745, call Rep. Jim Hansen, 202/225-0453. For more information about the environmentalists' proposal, call the Utah Wilderness Coalition, 801/486-2872 or Southern Utah Wilderness Association, 801/486-3161.

Brent Israelsen writes for the Deseret News in Utah.

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