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for people who care about the West

A monumental clash of values over Utah


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Congress weighs the fate of Utah's wild lands.

Utah's proposed BLM wilderness areas feature heart-stopping scenery: big rivers booming in sheer-walled canyons thousands of feet deep; labyrinthine canyon systems etched into colorful sedimentary rock formations; forested plateaus ringed by 1,000-foot high cliff walls; isolated mountain ranges surrounded by canyons and desert badlands.

Eighty-six percent of the 5.7 million acres recommended for wilderness by the Utah Wilderness Coalition are concentrated in southeastern Utah, where numerous large BLM roadless areas lie contiguous to one another and to the state's 2 million acres of national park lands.

Try to imagine it: a de facto wilderness two-thirds the size of all national parks in the lower 48 states taken together; a region of undeveloped public land as large as Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined.

It is easy to understand why environmentalists are passionate about this land. It is harder to understand why there is such a vast discrepancy between the two Utah wilderness bills.

I think this is because two bills represent the values of the "Old" and "New" West.

For constituents of the New West, wilderness is one of the region's most valuable assets. And the more, the better.

But the Utah congressional delegation's 1.8 million acre wilderness bill follows the belief that the industrial, agricultural and residential development of public lands is noble.

The Old West doesn't object to wilderness. Ranchers, miners, loggers and others also appreciate the region's natural beauty.

What the Old West objects to is the obstruction, by wilderness designation, of opportunities for economic development.

Utah politicians are also under considerable pressure from energy and mining companies.

According to the Federal Elections Commission, 28 PACs, including Amoco, BHP Utah International, Chevron, Exxon, Kennecott, Mobil, Peabody, Penzoil, Phillips, Tenneco and Texaco, made contributions totaling over $160,000 to members of the Utah congressional delegation between 1991 and 1994.

Developers support the delegation's bill because it ends the uncertainty over what will be protected as wilderness. It also blocks the BLM from recommending more lands for wilderness through its "hard release" provision.

Since nearly twice as much land is now temporarily protected within BLM wilderness study areas as would be designated wilderness by the Utah delegation's bill, environmentalists have nothing to lose and everything to gain by staving off what they see as a disastrous bill.