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Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, says a freshman New York congressman who seeks to declare one-tenth of Utah as wilderness is uninformed, is doing it to help raise funds and is improperly interfering in Utah politics.

That prompted environmentalists to countercharge that Orton is the one who is misinformed, is cutting them out of wilderness deliberations and is being "arrogant and naive."The blustering started when Orton this week sent letters to all House Democrats asking them as a personal favor not to co-sponsor a bill to be introduced by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., to create 5.4 million acres of wilderness in Utah.

It is nearly the same bill that former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, pushed for years. No current Utah member endorses it, so environmental groups asked Hinchey to push it. Orton and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, have proposed 1.4 million acres or less of wilderness on U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas.

"Mr. Hinchey has no substantive understanding of the facts under consideration in this issue, or of the volatility of the situation in Utah," Orton wrote.

"The Hinchey wilderness bill is only a political statement which may be very beneficial for his own fund-raising purposes, but is extremely destructive to my efforts to defuse an emotional and explosive situation in my district and find a compromise."

Ken Rait, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said, "The letter is arrogant, fraught with misinformation and reeks with desperation. . . . He asks in the letter for comity (politeness), but turns around and violates that himself."

Orton defended the letter, saying, "I asked Mr. Hinchey if he has ever been to Utah. He said no. I asked him if he had seen any of the areas he proposes for wilderness. He said no. I asked him if he had any idea of what resources were involved such as minerals and timber. He said no.

"My letter characterizing Hinchey's lack of knowledge on the facts is accurate. It is not a nasty letter. It just points out facts."

Rait says Orton's letter misrepresents facts. For example, he complained that while Orton's letter says he spent hundreds of hours in public hearings and fact-finding to find compromises, Rait says hearings and deliberations gave environmentalists short shrift - allowing only brief comments.

"The hearings were more like those under a Communist regime, and were not a Democratic process," Rait said. He added that Orton's comments that his process is beginning to work "show somebody is living in fantasyland."

Orton responded, "For them to say they were shut out of the process is just baloney, pure balderdash. Any time you don't agree with these people, they say they were cut out of the process. . .. They believe anyone who is listening would naturally agree with them."

Rait also complained Orton's letter is "naive" by criticizing another House member for becoming involved in Utah wilderness. "This is a federal issue and will be resolved by the federal Congress," Rait said.

Orton says he knows that, and merely wants Hinchey and others to delay introducing wilderness bills until the Utah delegation can reach a consensus. Orton and Hansen say they are near to merging their two competing bills, and then want to submit the compromise to groups throughout Utah for comment.

Rait also said Orton's letter misrepresented other facts in an effort to make "a highly emotional" appeal to other members that "just adds fuel to the fire" in wilderness controversies.

For example, Orton's letter calls wilderness the "single most divisive and controversial issue in my district and in Utah. In fact, people are actually shooting at one another over it."

Rait said, "The shooting he mentions may have been done by a ranch hand, not environmentalists. I don't think it's the greatest divisive issue. It's important, but education and budget issues are higher-profile."