Before he launched a series of wilderness hearings last year, Rep. Bill Orton said he wanted to act as a compromise facilitator, helping the opposing sides to come together on a bill both could support.
In September, after hearings in 16 locations throughout Utah, the Democratic congressman said of the wilderness debate: "The time has come to sit down and begin balancing priorities. I want to help that process for compromise . . . I want both sides to feel they can work with me."But as the adage has it, actions speak louder than words.
Deseret News staff writer Maureen Evans attended Orton's Sept. 14 hearing in Taylorsville High School. She reported that after listening to 31/2 hours of panels representing government, environmental groups, agriculture, business and education, fewer than 16 citizens were given two minutes each to express their opinions.
Orton staff member Ron Crittenden said most of the 60 people at the hearings were environmentalists supporting wilderness. He said, "I don't see in this auditorium any at-large citizens . . . And most of the environmentalists here are paid staff people."
Writing to the editor of this newspaper, Mark Mac-Allister, Salt Lake City, stated, "First, there were several citizens in attendance, myself included . . . We are not paid staff; rather, we are members of the public interested in the fate of our state's wildlands.
"Many of us who were able to attend simply refused to sit through the nearly four hours of testimony from various government agencies and special-interest groups in order to be allowed only three minutes to address Mr. Orton."
Mary Wenc, a Salt Lake resident, wrote to the Deseret News, "Was it a coincidence that four out of five panels consisted of anti-wilderness representatives?"
Scott Groene, a lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance who is based in Moab, attended the Orton hearing in that city.
During the meeting Groene pointed out that the environmentalists' wilderness proposals, along with details of their rationales, are spelled out in "Wilderness at the Edge," available at many bookstores throughout Utah.
Because this material is readily accessible, he said, anti-wilderness information that Orton was collecting at the hearings also should be available to the public so it could be examined, too.
Orton agreed the information should be public, according to the lawyer. "He said he would make it available," Groene said.
SUWA then began a dogged effort to get the information. Starting in November, the group made numerous telephone calls to Orton's staff, and SUWA director Brant Calkin visited Orton's office in Washington. Basically, they got promises and a run-around.
On March 6, Orton aide Sheldon Kinsel "finally . . . answered the phone, and I asked him about the information, if we could get it now," Groene said.
"And Sheldon at that point said they had decided they would not make it available to us and that they didn't think they would get any responses that would be helpful, they didn't want to work with SUWA."
This columnist had a similar experience with Or-ton's office Thursday, in trying to get a response to what Groene said. After three telephone calls to the Provo office, a press aide called back and tried to put conditions on any staff comment.
She said she wanted to make sure my column wasn't "too angled" against Orton and that the material was "two-sided." I tried to tell her that it was unethical for me to promise to meet conditions imposed by some official in writing my personal opinion column.
The reason is that what you might consider fair comment could be construed as extremely unfair by someone who doesn't like the comment.
Pleasing a congressman is not the purpose of an opinion column, and I refused to give any assurances.
The press aide said she'd try to get hold of Kinsel, but Orton's office did not call back by my deadline. For now, Groene's charges are not disputed.
"This guy's going around as a public official, to collect this information, on the public payroll," Groene said.
"It is public information. And he had already previously promised he would provide it to us."
Groene said the congressman not only reneged on his promise. He also "knocked himself out of the ball-park from thinking he was ever going to be a mediator in the wilderness debate."
Earlier this year, Orton tried to deflect criticism of his legislative inaction by saying he held meetings on issues that deserved them - like the Central Utah Project and wilderness.
But what did the elaborate wilderness hearings accomplish? Nothing. The actions of Orton's camp are as loud as a thunderclap. He's not facilitating anything. He is not a bridge, but a roadblock.