In Utah, the more things change, the more they stay the same

  • Pat Bagley,
  • Jim Stiles


No one can accurately predict the future, whether it's the effects of climate change or the flow of the Colorado River. But it's always interesting to speculate. Here in San Juan County, Utah, it appeared there might be some progress in the decades-old debate over which public lands should be protected as wilderness. Republican Sen. Bob Bennett tried to find consensus on the issue, and what did he get for it? His own party rejected him, refusing to nominate him for re-election at their convention in May.

Many Utah environmentalists were probably delighted, since some of them -- much like their conservative counterparts -- loathe any idea of compromise. And with even "grassroots" green groups boasting million-dollar payrolls, what incentive is there to put themselves out of business?

Yet the anti-wilderness zealots shared their adversary's glee. Perpetually locked in "Sagebrush Rebel" mode, few will acknowledge that even conservatives in San Juan County have embraced the recreation and amenities economy touted by environmentalists. Would the late Cal Black -- Ed Abbey's "Bishop Love" in his book The Monkey Wrench Gang -- have dreamed that his county would promote its natural wonders and beg for tourist dollars on National Public Radio? Could he have foreseen that his hometown of Blanding would publicly proclaim itself: "Your Base Camp to Adventure?" The mind boggles.

Bullheadedness is what defines both environmentalists and those locals who'd rather see coal mining or oil and gas drilling as the basis of an economy. So, 20 years from now, what might a headline proclaim?


Salt Lake City, July 2030

It's almost impossible to imagine, but both opponents and proponents of a Utah BLM wilderness bill have been fighting over the legislation for 50 years. Some despair that this impasse will never be broken. After half a century of bickering, is any progress possible?

Scott Groene, the aging longtime director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, believes the time has come. At a sparsely attended press conference, Groene announced that SUWA and the Utah Wilderness Coalition were on the verge of a major breakthrough. "We believe that after our latest citizens' inventory, we have a real handle on the wilderness that's still out there."

Groene told a stunned audience that the new coalition inventory reveals more than 66 million acres of available wilderness in Utah. "Yes," Groene replied to questions, " I am well aware that the number is more than the total amount of acreage in the entire state, but we really don't believe that should be an impediment to this bill. We simply included properties in other states that are owned by Utah residents."

Rod Decker, senior correspondent for KUTV in Salt Lake City, asked if it were true that SUWA includes the Mormon Church's headquarters, Temple Square, in its wilderness inventory.

"That is mostly true," Groene said guardedly, "but we are going to allow some cherry-stemming of Temple Square sidewalks, and we are fairly certain the temple itself does not have all the components for wilderness. There's not enough solitude in the Celestial Room."

Several Utah airport tarmacs where SUWA board members park their Gulfstream jets were also exempted from wilderness. "We believe in compromise," the SUWA director explained. "This is proof that we can be flexible."

Meanwhile, anti-wilderness advocate Brian Hawthorne, former director of AccessUSA and the leader of the BlueRibbon Panel for Open Access, offered his organization's proposal at a near-empty press conference in Cedar City.

"Our people have been out there on their ATVs; we've gone up one side of the state and down the other, and we've been able to locate 317 acres of real wilderness. That's what our inventory reveals."

Hawthorne identified the pinnacles of numerous rock spires and monuments throughout the state, including several well-known climbing rocks near Moab, Utah, as "possibly having outstanding wilderness characteristics." "We couldn't get our ATVs up them, so they must be wilderness. Otherwise we stand by our count."

Hawthorne refused to discuss a recent BlueRibbon internal memo that called for the removal and transfer of Utah's famed Delicate Arch to a more accessible location. "Let's just say we believe in equal access and leave it at that."

In the early 1990s, pro- and anti-wilderness forces lined up along respective acreages of 5.4 million acres versus 1.3 million acres. Today that gap has grown significantly. Has this difference of opinion inflamed the public?

A Dan Jones poll in the Deseret News says not. Of the 1,345 Utah citizens polled over the wilderness issue, 76 percent replied, "Don't care," "Don't know enough to answer," or "Never heard of wilderness."

Clearly, the debate will continue, even if nobody else notices.


Jim Stiles publishes his Canyon Country Zephyr online and never seems to tire of Utah wilderness politics.

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