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Confrontation was the hallmark of environmental news in Utah during the 1980s.

Disputes ran the full gamut from fights about stationing an enormous MX missile system in the western desert to battles over incinerators, a proposed nuclear waste repository, Utah County residents' demands for more air pollution control, and arguments about how much in-stream flows should be left after the Central Utah Project takes its cut.But the as-yet unresolved conflict over land use - that is, wilderness, parks and roads through the desert - dominated the headlines.

That doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of other news about toxic waste dumps, the cleanup of radioactive uranium mill tailings, spills of deadly cyanide on a major highway, oil spills into streams, gasoline contamination seeping underground in Moab.

But throughout the decade, no conservation issue was on the public's mind more consistently and intensely than land use. Positions hardened on both sides of the argument. The debate became so fierce that it caused a schism within the environmental camp.

The '80s began with the Sagebrush Rebellion in full cry. Anti-federal, anti-environmental groups were demanding the "return" of federal land into private and state control, although it was never owned by either in the first place.

On July 4, 1980, a group of Sagebrush Rebels used a bulldozer to scrape a short "road" in what they believed was a Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area near Moab, aiming to disqualify it from wilderness protection and to make a symbolic point. An environmentalist briefly confronted the bulldozer by standing in front of it, also making a symbolic point.

Another land-use conflict that stirred Utahns early in the decade was the battle over the Air Force's proposal to station MX Missiles throughout the western desert. The Air Force lost that battle after Utahns rallied against it and the LDS Church issued a position statement critical of the military plans.

Wilderness has also become a symbol of two different approaches toward land: conservation and use.

A compromise Forest Service bill passed in 1984, designating 750,000 acres to be free forever from the scars of developers.

In 1986, after reviewing its 22 million acres in Utah, the BLM made a preliminary recommendation to protect 1.9 million acres as wilderness. This set off a whole series of counter-proposals, ranging from nothing to 13 million acres.

Adding to the complexity of this volatile situation, the environmentalists' front fractured during the debates over wilderness.

Confrontations continued in court action over the Burr Trail, public hearings and angry demonstrations by both sides.

In one of the more exciting developments of 1989, the Land Board held meetings throughout Utah to explain its proposal to sell or lease state holdings in the national parks. The proposal met with mixed reactions in southern Utah.

But in a Salt Lake City hearing, the Land Board, governor and other officials were vigorously bashed for the plan. A Deseret News poll showed it was opposed by a majority of Utahns, and the Land Board withdrew the proposal - at least for the time being.

As the decade ends, the issues are still generating heated debate and promising many lively fights to come.



Top 10 environmental stories of the decade

1. Wilderness issues

2. Burr Trail controversy

3. State-Federal relationships

4. Clean air

5. Toxic Waste

6. Radiation victims cleanups and storage

7. MX missile debate

8. Hazardous waste incinerators

9. Water policy

10. Transportation of hazardous materials *****

(additional information)

Burr Trail

An enviromental hot spot is a 66-mile dirt road from Boulder, Garfield County, to Bullfrog, Kane County, known as the Burr Trail.

The route cuts through spectacular desert scenery, and forms the border between two Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas. When Garfield County announced it would upgrade it, hoping to attract more tourists, three enviromental groups filed suit in federal court.

The results were mixed: a ruling that the BLM should have studied environmental impacts of the plan more carefully, but also a decision that the country has a right of way allowing it to upgrade the road as it gets clearances.

On Dec. 3, 1987, four bulldozers ready to work on the trail were sabotaged when someone poured silicone into their engines. Grant Smith Johnson, 31, who lives in an environmentalist enclave at Deer Creek near the Burr Trail, was charged with vandalism, but they charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.

The controversy deepened when the State Land Board traded a strategic parcel of state land within Capitol Reef National Park to Garfield County.

Garfield County officials have said they aquired the section to pressure the National Park Service into supporting their paving plan.

MX Missiles

For the first two years of the 1980s, the MX Missile system was not only one of the biggest environmental controversies of Utah, but of the United States.

MX battles - which resulted in a victory for the anti-missile forces - built a powerful base of environmental activism in Utah.

In 1979, the Air Force announced it intended to build a $33 billion "racetrack" structure in Utah's western desert and eastern nevada to shuffle 200 MX Missiles around, keeping them hidden from Soviet satellites.

As the 80's began, members of the Utah congressional delegation were on record as favoring the MX Missile, although certain about the racetrack system. But opposition mounted. In June 1980, then-Gov. Scot M. matheson announced his opposition to deploying the missile in Utah and Nevada. Then in May 1981, the First Presidency of the LDS Church issued a statement deploring the nuclear arms race and expressing grave concern about concentrating the missiles in Utah and Nevada.

Finally, in Ocotber 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan announced he was scrapping the plan to base the missiles in the Great Basin.

State lands

A continuing environmental battle concerns the 3.8 million acres of state land, most of which is scattered in one-quare-mile sections throughout the enormous federal domain.

Nearly all of this stte property is dedicated by law to generating money to support the public schools. But in its scattered, or "checkerboarded" state, it is difficult to manage economically.

In the early 1980s, then-Gov. Scott M. matheson launched "Project BOLD," designed to consolidate the holdings through trades. After years of negotiations and hearings, it got nowhere.

State budgeters are particularly charged-up over 116,000 acres of Utah's land that has been engulfed by national parks or Indian reservations. In parctical effect, at least until there is a trade or other recompense, this is land the federal government has seized without compensation to state coffers.