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Few things are as irritating to Westerners as Eastern lawmakers meddling in their affairs. It ruffles the self-reliant spirit of the West and smacks of the type of colonial attitude the nation's forefathers fought against.

That's why Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., is encountering a lot of clenched fists these days from Western lawmakers for her bill designed to protect the Rocky Mountains. Most of Maloney's constituents live in Manhattan high-rises and have a definition of wildlife that has more to do with social interaction than Western mountains.Her bill would protect about 16 million acres of Rocky Mountain high country, ban commercial logging on portions of five states, end below-cost timber sales in National Forests and protect the habitats of bears, elk, wolf, caribou and many other species.

The bill doesn't directly affect Utah, but the issue is one with which Utahns have become painfully familiar through the years as fights have flared over wilderness protection. The difference is that those fights always involved Utah's congressional representatives, not distant outsiders.

Maloney needs to understand that Westerners in general agree with the idea that the rugged beauty of this region should be appreciated and not spoiled. The western United States features some of the world's most spectacular natural beauty.

However, Westerners do not appreciate outsiders implying arrogantly that they neither understand nor appreciate their heritage. For the most part, they also resent the idea that the West should be transformed into a giant, inaccessible museum where precious resources forever will be unavailable to man.

Maloney's bill comes at a time when Western ranchers, farmers and miners already feel besieged by the Clinton administration. From proposals to raise grazing fees to radical mining reform, presidential initiatives over the past year have rallied many who feel threats to their traditional way of life.

President Clinton and congress-people like Maloney should pause and learn to understand the people and the spirit of the West before they try imposing their unique preservation philosophies. Better yet, they should leave the management of Western lands to Westerners.

That would be best for the region and, coincidentally, for their own Democratic Party. Many Western Democrats are feeling mounting pressure to oppose the administration. Clinton, who won seven Western states in 1992, can ill afford to treat the region and its people as if they were insignificant.

Many Westerners already are beyond placating. In response to Maloney's bill, Rep. Larry LaRocco, D-Idaho, drafted a measure to declare Manhattan's Central Park and Upper East Side a protected wilderness. Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., suggested Maloney's district be returned to the Indians, the original owners.

They were only joking, sort of. Judging by the condition of much of the East, people like Maloney are hardly in a position to credibly manage Western lands.