Congress weighs the fate of Utah's wild lands

  • Behind-the-Rocks wilderness study area and upper Spanish Valley

    Tom Till
  • Kayaks along Muddy Creek now protected as a wilderness study area

    Ray Wheeler

(Note: this article accompanies another feature story in this issue, Utah hearings misfire.)

When Utah's congressional delegation announced almost a year ago that it would introduce a bill designating BLM wilderness, environmentalists in the state were shocked.

They knew they faced a potentially disastrous alignment of political planets: Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, a right-wing congressional delegation determined to "solve" the wilderness "problem," and a president with a record of capitulation to the Western voting bloc.

In grim meetings last January and February, Utah Wilderness Coalition leaders made two commitments. They would urge supporters to participate in the delegation's wilderness review process. But if the delegation's wilderness bill opened far more land to development than it would protect as wilderness, they would fight to kill it.

The coalition held a meeting for supporters in Salt Lake City in mid-February, and 500 people filled the meeting hall to capacity, overflowing into a bitterly cold winter night.

The crowd was restive, vocal, eager for action. Two plastic buckets passed hand-to-hand around the room returned stuffed with over $1,000 in cash.

Encouraged, the coalition hired a full-time organizer to recruit volunteers and coordinate their work. By June, the coalition's activist database contained more than 700 names. It would grow to 1,200 by summer's end, while the number of UWC member organizations boomed from 34 to 92.

Volunteers produced and distributed 800 copies of a 40-page Utah Wilderness Activist Handbook. They set up an Internet web site and created an "Adopt a Wilderness" program to recruit teams of advocates for each of 13 regions in their proposal. A petition drive led by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance teams contacted over 30,000 people in 10 Utah cities, securing 16,000 signatures in support of the coalition proposal.

In preparation for the final round of wilderness hearings in mid-April, volunteers staffed two phone banks which ran simultaneously on weekday evenings for over a month. Over a two-month period the coalition sent out 10,000 pieces of direct mail and telephoned over 8,000 people to turn out supporters for county and regional wilderness hearings. It also organized car pools and chartered buses.

After wilderness opponents claimed in hearings that lands within the coalition's proposal lacked wilderness character because they contained roads, mines, cabins and other human impacts, volunteers responded within days by obtaining maps showing the alleged impacts and mobilizing photo-reconnaissance teams to investigate their existence, location and condition. With a flourish of over-the-top enthusiasm, one group of 30 volunteers, led by Salt Lake City chemist Will McCarville, surveyed every mile of alleged road within the proposed 750,000-acre San Rafael Swell wilderness and produced an 800-page report detailing its findings.

By June 1, it was apparent that the Utah congressional delegation's attempt to "balance" public comment by situating public hearings in rural Utah had not worked. Statewide, 69 percent of the written and oral public comment endorsed the coalition's 5.7 million acre proposal; an additional 20 percent favored wilderness designation without naming a specific proposal. Only 6 percent supported the 1 million acre proposal of the county commissioners. Even in "regional" hearings held in small-town southern Utah, 40 to 70 percent of the speakers had endorsed the coalition proposal.

Utahns now watched with interest:

After its elaborate show of soliciting public comment, the delegation found itself impaled on the horns of a nasty dilemma. Instead of creating one test of public opinion, it had created two. Instead of receiving one opinion, it had received two radically different opinions.

On one side stood the accountants, medical technicians, computer programmers, businessmen, scientists, school teachers, nurses, college students, high school students, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and small children who had spoken for the majority supporting the 5.7 million acre wilderness proposal. On the other side stood the county commissioners of rural Utah.

Now the Utah congressional delegation had to decide on which side of the line it would stand. If the delegation's wilderness bill designated significantly more than the 1 million acres of wilderness recommended by the county commissioners, there could be hell to pay, not only with the commissioners but with ideological allies throughout the West and in the Congress. If the bill designated significantly less than the 5.7 million acres endorsed by the majority, the public would believe that the Utah delegation had forsaken the public interest on behalf of a bunch of county commissioners.

On June 6, the Utah delegation held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to unveil its wilderness bill. It was immediately clear that while the bill appeared to recommend 1.8 million acres for wilderness, in actuality the delegation had chosen to stand with the county commissioners.

The "Utah Public Lands Act of 1995" (H.R. 1745/S.884) would leave open to development nearly 4 million acres of roadless BLM land in Utah. The bill would release from "interim management protection" nearly half of the 3.2 million acres of BLM wilderness study areas where development has been forbidden until Congress enacted a wilderness bill.

The bill also contained "hard release" language prohibiting the BLM from managing any non-wilderness lands so as to preserve their potential for future wilderness designation. The BLM was also prohibiting from studying or recommending lands for wilderness designation.

The bill further stipulated that the BLM must manage all 20 million acres of non-wilderness BLM land in Utah "for the full range of nonwilderness multiple uses'- an invitation to would-be developers to argue in court that any management restriction which would have the incidental effect of preserving wilderness character was forbidden by the act.

Finally, while the bill would designate 1.8 million acres of wilderness in tracts scattered across the state, a host of special provisions would allow vehicular access, low-level military overflights, and the construction of roads, dams, reservoirs, powerlines, pipelines, communications facilities, even within areas designated as wilderness by the act.

Reaction from Utah environmentalists was swift: They called the bill a zoning master plan for commercial and industrial development in the heart of every large BLM roadless area in the state.

"The bill mocks the concept of wilderness," said former Utah congressman Wayne Owens, now chairman of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's board of directors, in a letter to the Deseret News.

In the blaze of publicity surrounding the Utah delegation's bill, it is easy to overlook the other wilderness bill-H.R. 1500, "America's Redrock Wilderness Act," which would protect 5.7 million acres.

Originally introduced in 1989 by Rep. Owens, H.R. 1500 had acquired over 100 co-sponsors by 1992 when Owens left Congress after losing a Senate race. No member of the Utah congressional delegation was willing to reintroduce the bill. Instead, SUWA lobbyist Cindy Shogan recruited New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey to reintroduce H.R. 1500 in 1993 and again in 1995. With each new Congress, coalition supporters have painstakingly rebuilt the co-sponsor base. As of this writing, the bill has 103 co-sponsors in the House.

But H.R. 1500 has never been reported out of its House subcommittee. And after nearly seven years of intense searching, environmentalists have failed to find a single senator willing to sponsor the bill: H.R. 1500 does not exist in the Senate.

A principal obstacle in the senate is "senatorial courtesy" - the reluctance of senators to meddle with another state's issues. Press reports suggesting that Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will hold hostage federal judgeship appointments have probably also helped to cool any ardor for H.R. 1500.

By comparison, H.R. 1745/S. 884 had massive backing: four of the state's five representatives and both of its senators. The delegation's bill moved ahead in the House, seemingly unaffected by all the work against it. In the House, it was shepherded by Utah's Jim Hansen, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and National Parks.

It whipped through congressional field hearings and subcommittee markup in six weeks. On Aug. 2, it blew through the full House Energy and Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, on a 23-8 vote.

But then it hit the full House on Dec. 14 and suffered a startling setback, unexpected by both environmentalists and by the Utah delegation (see story on page 9).

Hardly anyone thinks the delegation's bill is dead, but predictions that the bill would move easily through the House have been proven wrong.

The bill's progress through the Senate, shepherded by Hatch and Sen. Robert Bennett, has been slower. But at the same time, it has not suffered the kind of reverse experienced in the House. The bill has been endorsed by the Energy and Resources Committee and should go to the Senate floor in 1996.

The third player is the White House. Environmentalists hope that, if necessary, President Clinton will veto the delegation's bill. Interior officials announced that Secretary Bruce Babbitt would recommend a veto if the bill were to pass "in its present form." They stressed that hard release language was unacceptable. But in recent weeks, press reports have suggested that the Utah delegation may be willing to give up hard release language. Such a last-minute concession might grease the skids for the bill both in the Senate and in the White House.

Faced a few months ago with what seemed like a juggernaut, the Utah Wilderness Coalition, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, launched a nationwide campaign. Volunteers descended in waves upon Capitol Hill. Four groups of supporters from Utah and other states each spent a week on the Hill, with each group visiting over 100 congressional offices. Still more advocates have made individual visits to congressional offices throughout the year. Among the pilgrims was actor Robert Redford, a Utah resident, who reportedly met with 20 senators in a single day in mid-July.

In August and September, three national environmental groups mailed nearly 150,000 special alerts to their most active supporters in key congressional districts throughout the country, asking for letters and phone calls to congressional offices about the Utah wilderness bill.

SUWA carried the campaign to other fronts. The group drafted retiring executive director Brant Calkin to undertake the equivalent of the traditional Mormon mission, and Calkin barnstormed America in a beat-up 1977 Volkswagen van, carrying the Utah wilderness gospel to over 120 cities in 24 states. Calkin's bible was a dual-projector slide show; baptism consisted of writing letters to congressional offices, and signing up to participate in a nationwide network of grassroots "Wilderness Warriors."

While Calkin recruited grassroots supporters one handshake at a time, the public relations firm of Vanguard Communications, retained by SUWA, coordinated a nationwide media air-war. Former BLM director Jim Baca, now a SUWA board member and Wilderness Society staff member, began a national press tour in August while Vanguard pumped out press kits and fed the Utah wilderness story to journalists.

Stories about the Utah wilderness dispute have appeared in at least a half dozen nationally distributed newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Country Living and USA Weekend, while editorials critical of the 1.8 million acre Utah wilderness bill have appeared in at least 30 newspapers from Maine to California.

A sampling of the editorial copy suggests that H.R. 1745/S. 884 has been taking a brutal beating: The Santa Fe New Mexican: "The bill is about Utah, but if it becomes federal law, New Mexico and the rest of the West will soon hear bulldozers and blasting throughout our wildlands."

The Kansas City Star: "Congress needs to stop this destructive proposal dead in its tracks."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer: "House Republicans are about to perpetrate a massive sellout of the public interest in a spectacular corner of the West."

The Des Moines Register: "How ironic that the congressional delegation closest to the beauty of southern Utah should be so eager to destroy it."

The Washington Post: "It is a sign of the land-ravenous times, as well as the brazenness of commercial exploiters and their Utah friends Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett in the Senate, that preserving 5.7 million acres out of 22 million is opposed."

By mid-summer, some congressional offices had begun to feel the effect of the national campaign. New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's press secretary, for example, estimates the senator has received 1,500 to 2,000 letters and calls, while Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell has reportedly been inundated with over 3,000. Representatives in the House did not receive the same volume of mail and calls, but they too were lobbied hard, with the campaign peaking in the fall and early winter.

Now we must wait until 1996 to see the results of the Utah delegation's determination, on the one hand, to push its bill through matched against the massive media and lobbying activity expended by Utah's wilderness activists.

The stakes go beyond Utah's wildlands.

If Utah environmentalists succeed in stopping the Utah delegation's wilderness bill, they will have scored a profound victory. If they fail, the Utah Wilderness bill will set a devastating precedent for future wilderness bills.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- To comment on the Utah Wilderness bills

- How to influence Congress on just dollars a day

- A monumental clash of values over Utah

Stories in this issue on Utah wilderness were paid for by the High Country News Research Fund.

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