Utah hearings misfire

  • Predawn protester in Salt Lake City

    Francois Camoin
  • Inside the hearing room

    Amy O'Connor
  • Utah's Sens. Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch at the hearings

    Francois Camoin

Unidentified speaker: What I would like to do is have a political (poll) ... and just let everybody express what they can't express because of time limits; so until that red light goes off, (inaudible) make noise and ...

The crowd, chanting: 5.7, 5.7, 5.7, 5.7, 5.7,

- Official transcript, Salt Lake City Wilderness Hearing, April 15, 1995

There are 400 seats in the University of Utah's Orson Spencer Hall auditorium. Every seat is filled. More than a hundred people stand or sit in the aisles; another hundred jam into the foyer, where students perch like roosting birds atop rows of cabinets. Fifty more people mill in the lobby outside the auditorium, where a harried official sits at a table surrounded by would-be speakers demanding to know why their names cannot be found on the speaker list. In all, somewhere between 700 and 1,000 Utahns will visit the auditorium during today's four-hour public hearing on BLM wilderness. One in 10 will have an opportunity to speak.

After 39 wilderness hearings held in remote corners of Utah over three months, the Utah congressional delegation's wilderness review process has arrived on the Wasatch Front, where 80 percent of Utahns live. The long wait has not made for a warm welcome. Speaker after speaker has mercilessly blasted the panel of prominent Utahns sitting before them: Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and all five members of the state's congressional delegation.

From the beginning, the governor and the delegation made it clear that they would rely heavily on recommendations from county commissioners in crafting their wilderness bill. All but the final round of six "regional" wilderness hearings would be held at the county level and presided over by county commissioners.

Of Utah's 29 counties, only 16 were invited to hold hearings and make recommendations. The 13 mostly urban counties from which no recommendations will be accepted contain 87 percent of Utah's population. By contrast, the 16 rural counties whose recommendations will form the basis for the Utah delegation's wilderness bill contain just 13 percent of Utah's population. The 16 elect counties are in rural southern and western Utah, where the state's Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas are concentrated.

The county-centered process is consistent with the political ideology of the governor and the delegation. But so far as Utah environmentalists are concerned, this approach puts the fox in the hen house.

Utah's rural county commissioners have not helped matters by advertising their bias. The public notice inviting Garfield County citizens to attend the county's wilderness hearings opened as follows: "We feel very strongly that lands that do not fit the 1964 Wilderness Bill criteria should not be designated as wilderness, and we need your help in documenting proof as to why we are not including them." Garfield County wilderness hearings were chaired by commissioner Louise Liston, who has described the National Wilderness Preservation System as "a hideaway for sex and drugs."

By situating all but three of 42 wilderness hearings in cities one to four hours distant from the Wasatch Front, the Utah delegation appears to have set the stage for a hearing record heavily tilted against wilderness. Any citizen wishing to influence a county's wilderness recommendation must attend the public hearings in the county where that wilderness is located. For Wasatch Front residents, the average driving distance to county hearings was nearly 200 miles, each way. Those intent upon participating in the preparation of wilderness recommendations for the entire state would have had to attend 35 hearings in 20 cities, traveling 13,000 miles in six weeks, or about 300 miles per day, and occasionally appearing in three or four different cities on the same evening.

On April 1, the governor's office revealed the fruits of its wilderness review process. Utah county commissioners were recommending wilderness designation for just under 1 million acres.

The focus now turned to the final round of six "regional" wilderness hearings, where the public would be allowed to comment on the county recommendation. While the purpose of this final round of hearings was to obtain highly specific public comment on the county recommendations, no detailed maps or descriptions of those recommendations were published or made available to the public.

So today, in Salt Lake City, frustrations which have been accumulating throughout four months are being focused, like sunlight pouring through a lens, upon the Orson Spencer Hall auditorium. The air in the auditorium is hot, stale, and heavy with tension.

During the past four days Utah's governor and congressional delegation have endured nearly 20 hours of hearings in five cities. Gov. Leavitt and Rep. Bill Orton still have one more hearing to go. The group looks pale, exhausted. Cindy King, chair of the Tooele Chapter of the Sierra Club in Utah, steps to the microphone. Speakers prescient enough to make telephone reservations in advance have been limited to two minutes, while those without reservations will have 60 seconds. King will have two minutes to submit detailed, area-specific comments on the 141 proposed wilderness areas in the Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal. But instead of detailed comments, she devotes her first minute to an attack on the delegation's wilderness review process, her voice shaking with anger.

She mentions "threats... to my economic livelihood from Tooele County officials." She is "appalled', she says, by "this process pitting (us) against each other," and appalled by "the greediness of the Tooele County Commissioners," whom she berates for cashiering the Stansbury mountain range "because of their vast interest in toxic pollution." (The proximity of mineral processing plants, which are among the largest point-sources of air pollution in the nation, was given by the Tooele County commissioners as a principal reason for omitting the Stansburys from their wilderness recommendation.) King derides the County's 39,000-acre wilderness recommendation, which would leave more than 80 percent of the county's roadless BLM land open to development. Her first minute is up.

"For the remainder of my allotted time," she says, "I will now stand in silence to show what this process has been trying to do to the public."

King backs away from the microphone to stand at parade rest, chin up, eyes glaring defiantly at the governor and delegation. Governor and delegation stare back, their faces hardened into statuary, their eyes glazed.

Into the void of deep silence a ground swell of applause begins to build. Hearing moderator Enid Waldholtz, a young but forceful congresswoman with an authoritative voice, has already admonished the crowd to refrain from applause. But the applause continues to build, and this time Waldholtz does nothing to stop it. It is apparent that the Will to Authority and the Voice of Prudence have been holding council in Waldholtz' mind, and that Prudence has had the final word. This auditorium is in the heart of Utah's second congressional district. The people applauding are Waldholtz' constituents.

One by one, then in groups, people rise to their feet. Soon the entire crowd is standing. People are hooting, stomping, screaming, waving raised hands and clenched fists, waving signs. The ovation lasts 38 seconds, but it seems more like 10 minutes. Finally the applause tapers off and the crowd begins to sit down.

But King's time is still not quite up.

She remains before the microphone, still trembling with anger, a lone exclamation point standing in place of a thousand unspoken sentences.

Now a second wave of applause begins to build. Hundreds of people are again clapping, stomping, and chanting in unison. The rhythmic pounding is like that of a great hammer beating on the roof. The whole auditorium seems to be shaking.

The crowd: "5.7, 5.7, 5.7...."

No doubt the hostile reception at their own wilderness hearings has come as a shock to the governor and delegation. Even in small-town southern Utah, they have repeatedly been stung by sharp criticism. In the coal-mining community of Price, a biology professor from Brigham Young University bitterly denounced the delegation's wilderness review process, calling it a "deep fraud," and 47-year-old medical technician Gayle Hoskison, born and raised in Emery County, told the county commissioners "your proposal just stinks." In Moab, a speaker accused Rep. Bill Orton of accepting bribes from the mining industry, and in Cedar City the proceedings were interrupted by a woman shouting "Shame, shame, shame!"

Something seems to have gone wrong with half of the Utah delegation's game-plan. The rural county commissioners have behaved as expected; their 1 million acre benchmark will serve as a useful counterweight to the 5.7 million-acre proposal of the Utah Wilderness Coalition. But the final round of hearings has not gone according to plan. Even in southern Utah, speakers supporting the coalition's 5.7 million acres outnumbered those supporting the county recommendations by overwhelming majorities.

Instead of radical environmentalists, those speaking for more wilderness have revealed themselves to be accountants, insurance agents, scientists, doctors, lawyers, mayors, computer programmers, college professors, housewives, high school students, small children, and a large contingent of well-scrubbed college students from Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Mormon church.

In a state known for conformity and top-down authority, where had this confrontation come from? How had the state's savvy political leadership gotten crosswise not just with the hundreds of people in that auditorium, but with a majority of constituents across the state?

And how had these BLM lands - which the delegation wanted to treat as Utah's - become a national issue? Why was the New York Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Des Moines Register writing about Utah's wildlands? Why was Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey (a state with challenges of its own) hearing from thousands of his constituents about Utah's BLM lands?

Finally, after months of hard work, how did the Utah delegation manage to humiliate itself on Dec. 14 in its stronghold: the House of Representatives?

Read on. (Editor's note: a second feature story, Congress weighs the fate of Utah's wild lands, plus multiple sidebars, some listed below, accompany this article.)

Ray Wheeler is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a wilderness activist.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A 4 million acre difference

- The delegation's bill gets shellacked

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