Your editorial Dec. 9 regarding Utah's irreplaceable wilderness missed the mark badly. It may be time to pass a wilderness bill through Congress but not Rep. Bill Orton's, not the Bureau of Land Management's and not an inadequate combination of the two.

Sixty years ago, southern Utah was still blessed with 18 million acres of wilderness, but our natural heritage has dwindled so precipitously that Utah volunteers found less than a third still pristine when conducting an inventory 10 years ago. What has not already been lost is seriously at risk today.The citizens' inventory became necessary because BLM botched its wilderness review. You might expect conservationists to flatly make such an assertion, but former Rep. John Sieberling conducted a congressional investigation in 1983 and found that BLM in fact did improperly narrow the amount of acreage from which it would eventually recommend to Congress what should be designated.

BLM's proposal is based on that improper review, yet the agency recommends more for designation as wilderness than does Orton and more than anyone in Utah's delegation appears willing to support. It is incorrect to describe what residents of this state have proposed as "unrealistically high." That citizens' proposal is embodied in a bill, HR1500, that was sponsored by 95 members of Congress in 1994, and more than 70 of those are returning.

Finally, your editorial summarily suggests that any of what is now protected by BLM as de facto wilderness "is more than most Utahns want." Polls show a majority of Utahns do support substantial wilderness designations. While Utahns have an important role to play, many Americans support protection of these national interest lands, as evidenced by the broad and bipartisan support HR1500 enjoys.

If we are unable to pass along only 6 million acres of BLM wilderness - about one-tenth of the entire state - to future generations of Americans, we will have squandered a precious opportunity. Utah's economy has suffered no ill effects from de facto wilderness now tenuously protected by BLM as wilderness study areas and would do equally well with even more under permanent protection. We should leave more than what you suggest of Utah's magnificence for those who follow us.

Rudy Lukez, chairman

Utah Wilderness coalition

Darrell Knuffke

The Wilderness society

Lawson LeGate

Sierra club

Mike Matz, executive director

Southern Utah Wilderness Area

Rod Greenough

National Parks and Conservation Association

Elizabeth McCoy