Come February, the state's most vocal environmental group will expand its field offices into southwestern Utah.

The 12,000-member Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance plans to transfer staff attorney Scott Groene from Moab to Cedar City, which, until 1991, used to be the group's headquarters.While Groene believes that region remains ripe for environmental activism, not all locals are thrilled by SUWA's return.

"I imagine they're going to be moving into hostile territory," said Rep. Met Johnson, R-New Harmony, the unofficial leader of the "Cowboy Caucus," a group of legislators fighting to maintain rural Utah's traditional way of life.

But Johnson, who makes a point of not acknowledging SUWA, down-played the news of the group's re-establishing itself in Cedar City.

"They can go anywhere they want," he said.

The move to Cedar City will give SUWA its fourth office. It also has headquarters in Salt Lake City, a branch in Washington, D.C., and will retain its Moab office on a part-time basis.

Groene said the new office in Cedar City will ease SUWA's travel budget. "But the main thing is the amount of issue work going on in southwest Utah."

Some of those concerns include timber harvesting in the Dixie National Forest, preservation of the Virgin River and several proposed wilderness areas.

Groene will also assist in SUWA's campaign against Anda-lex Resources Inc., which wants to mine coal from the Kaiparowits Plateau near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Noting how the beauty of southwestern Utah is attracting masses of people, Groene said the region is in trouble because of increasing pressures on the area's fragile ecosystems.

"The number of threatened and endangered species is an indicator that something's wrong with the environment," he said.

The influx of people into southwestern Utah in recent years also will give SUWA an opportunity to expand its grassroots efforts, Groene said.

"There is a real advantage to being located where you can run out and look at a project when it comes through. And there's a real advantage to being in the grocery store and hearing what people are saying."

An ex-aide to former Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens, Groene opened SUWA's Moab office in early 1991 and quickly became an oft-quoted critic of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and its policies on offroad vehicle use, grazing, petroleum development and filming. He also had a regular column in the Canyon Country Zephyr, an alternative monthly newspaper in Moab.

He regularly caught the wrath of those who made their living off the public lands.

"You might just say he's been a thorn under the saddle blanket," said Betty Stanton, director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Com-mission. "If there was a problem with Scott, it's that he was a little flamboyant and went overboard sometimes. But that may have been his M.O."

Zephyr editor Jim Stiles defended Groene.