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Two and a half million acres of some of the most scenic land anywhere in the world. But they are also lands rich in natural resources.

Can scenic and environmental qualities in Kane and Garfield counties really be preserved in the face of coal mining and livestock grazing?How to manage for apparent conflicting uses was the topic as the Bureau of Land Management sponsored a recent public hearing concerning an Escalante and Kanab Recourse Area Management Plan - a document that will dictate how lands tucked in the heart of southern Utah's famed Canyon Country will be managed.

The Sept. 18-19 hearing was the first of what will likely be many public hearings in drafting the congressionally mandated plan, a process not expected to be completed until 1995. It is also a potentially volatile process that threatens to pit environmentalists who want to preserve natural qualities against local residents who rely on the natural resources for jobs. The BLM is hoping the hearing process will bring both sides together.

"It can either turn out to be a model in resolving conflicts or it can be the unfortunate model that has existed in public land management in Western states," said Jim Ruch of the Grand Canyon Trust.

More than any other environmental group, the Grand Canyon Trust has taken a pro-active approach to resolving such conflicts, recognizing the concern of local residents affected by environmental decisions.

"I hope this process brings people together and doesn't drive them apart," he said.

"It is difficult to solve one's own destiny when you are in the midst of lands controlled by others and in the midst of the global economy."

The hearing also featured representatives of the National Parks and Conservation Association, Andalex Resources, local governments and the Kaibab-Paiute Indian tribe, among others.

Directly affected by the management plan will be the almost 10,000 people who live in Kane and Garfield Counties. One of them, Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston, is adamant that "environmental fanaticism" has wrecked havoc on the nation's economy and traditional values.

"We are all environmentalists. We all want clean air and clean lands, but we also want our freedom," she said.

Echoing that sentiment was Sam Quigley of Andalex Resources, a company trying to develop the first coal mine on the rich Kaiparowits Plateau. Quigley, who offered no apologies for past mining environmental mistakes, said natural resource development is the embodiment of multiple use of public lands.

"It is imperative we recognize that modern mining companies have a different agenda than in the past," he said.

But federal lands do not belong to the people of Kane and Garfield counties exclusively, nor to the companies developing the resources, emphasized Rod Greeno of the National Parks and Conservation Association. They belong to all Americans. Nor can local economies be separated from global ones.

"Ethical observations reach across the globe," he said, "and have an ethical impact on the rest of nature. For me, that need should be reflected in government actions and in personal choices."

Greeno said the most important resource here is open spaces and pristine beauty.

Mike Cohen, a professor of English at Southern Utah University and author of a book on the Sierra Club, decried the long history of using up resources.

"`I am here to make sure certain special interest groups don't get what they want," he said. "What I fear most in the resource management plan is the dividing up and using up of the land."

The lands in question are particularly popular among backpackers, hikers and off-road enthusiasts. They also surround or border Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area and a proposed Escalante Canyon National Conservation area. The public lands have seen record increases in visitation in recent years.

Whether the BLM can walk a fine line between environmental concerns and those of ranchers, miners and others remains to be seen.

"We are getting pretty good at wrecking each other's trains," Ruch said of the ongoing battles. "And our trains aren't running very well right now. We have created an endless uncertainty (in which) we can't make decisions."