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A state legislator and the chairman of Utah State University's governing board have pressured the Utah Geographic Alliance for debating wilderness.

Rep. Met Johnson, R-New Harmony, and Booth Wallentine, chairman of USU's governing board, both contacted the alliance, which has been co-sponsoring wilderness discussions.Most recently, the pressure resulted in the alliance's withdrawal from a Deseret News project on wilderness, the most controversial public-lands issue in Utah.

At the suggestion of the alliance, whose members consist of Utah schools and universities, the Deseret News had decided to do a Newspaper in Education project on wilderness during National Geography Week, Nov. 13-20. The week's theme was "Keeping Sight of Wilderness."

But after hearing from Johnson and Wallentine, the alliance's director, Clifford Craig, had second thoughts and pulled out of the program.

"I think it's really pathetic when a legislator throws his weight around to keep kids and teachers from getting information he may not agree with," said Carolyn Dickson, manager of Deseret Newspaper in Education. "Doesn't that sound like something we try to avoid in America?"

That sentiment was echoed by Norma Jean Remington, a Centerville Junior High teacher. "How tragic that something that needs to be in the hands of the public didn't get there because of people who are so narrow in their vision."

But Johnson said he never told anyone not to discuss wilderness. He only wanted to ensure state institutions were not promoting wilderness. Wallentine could not be reached for comment.

Last summer, Dickson began preparing an eight-page tabloid-size publication that would be inserted in the Nov. 8 edition of the newspaper. The neutral publication would explain wilderness and its history as well as the current debate over which lands and how many acres should be designated as federally protected wilderness areas.

The project was to be funded with a $2,500 grant from the Utah Geographic Alliance, a $500 grant from the U.S. Forest Service and a $500 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

In late October, however, Craig contacted Dickson to say his organization was being pressured politically not to participate in the wilderness project.

Craig had been contacted by Johnson, the unofficial leader of the "Cowboy Caucus," a group of rural legislators who are fighting federal control, with wilderness as their chief enemy.

Johnson wrote a letter to Craig, who is also a professor of geography at USU. "As you know," Johnson said, "the policy of the Legislature as well as the congressional delegation is that Utah does not want any more wilderness. In our opinion, in rural Utah, wilderness is a land of no use."

Craig also got what he perceived as a threatening phone call from Wallentine, chairman of USU's board of trustees and an executive with Utah Farm Bureau.

The geographic alliance is particularly sensitive to political pressure these days because it is trying to get a $500,000 one-time state grant to match a $500,000 grant from the National Geographic Society. The money would be used to establish the National Geographic Utah Foundation to "encourage and improve the teaching of geography and increase and disseminate geographic knowledge" to Utah students.

"We've been moved to the top of this list for this half million (dollar) grant. Now all of that is threatened because of this wilderness debate we were pulled into."

Because of the controversy, the Deseret News told the alliance to withdraw from the NIE project. The lack of the alliance's funding kept the Deseret News from publishing the wilderness packet as a newspaper insert. But the information was published in booklet form and sent by mail to the teachers who had requested it.