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The debate over how many acres of Utah's back country should be designated as protected wilderness seems destined to continue indefinitely. Now comes another new proposal, this time by Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah.

Orton's proposal is more conservative than a plan proposed by the Bureau of Land Management two years ago. He would set aside 1.2 million acres of BLM land as wilderness, which is even less than the 1.4 million acres supported by the 1991 Utah Legislature - a level considered at the time to be unrealistically low.But that was before Republicans took control of Congress.

The BLM's proposal calls for about 2 million acres. On the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., is sponsoring a bill supported by most environmental groups. It calls for 5.7 million acres - an unrealistically high level.

The disparity in numbers indicates Congress is no closer than ever to making a decision. To the extent that is true, environmentalists will continue to have the upper hand. Until a wilderness bill becomes law, the BLM has agreed to set aside 3.2 million acres and treat it as if it were protected wilderness.

That is more than most Utahns want.

Wilderness designation is intended to preserve many of the state's natural wonders and to protect them from the damaging affects of automobiles, mining and other commercial development. Every impact on the environment triggers other impacts that ultimately can harm the fragile ecosystem.

Yet human beings need to use natural resources to sustain burgeoning cities, to strengthen economies and to care for everyday needs. The trick is to find a balance that allows for basic and immediate human needs while protecting natural beauties from needless and irreplaceable destruction.

Orton's plan goes a little overboard in some respects, designating an additional 1.3 million acres of National Park Service land as wilderness. Such land already enjoys protection. As a matter of policy, federal officials no longer allow new developments or recreation areas within parks.

He also calls for designating 1.8 million acres of BLM property as "national conservation areas," something between protected wilderness and no restraints at all. It's a concept worth considering, particularly in the San Rafael Swell, which already is bisected by I-70. Restricting land around a busy freeway by designating it as wilderness off-limits to motor vehicles seems a bit illogical.

When it convenes in January, Congress should get down to the business of settling the wilderness question once and for all. Whether it ultimately chooses Orton's or the BLM's proposal, or a combination of the two, Congress has a responsibility to finally draw a reasonable balance that recognizes the needs of man and nature.