Someday, when the dust from grazing and mining reform has settled, the federal government is going to take a serious look at Utah's wilderness lands.
So says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who appeared live on KUED Channel 7 Tuesday night to answer questions about the Clinton administration's controversial quest to change Western land management policies.Places such as the Book Cliffs, the San Rafael desert and the Escalante canyons are prime candidates for wilderness and additions to the national park system, but the administration currently has no position on Utah wilderness or park expansion.
"It's going to involve a major wilderness proposal. How major? That's still an issue," Babbitt said. "But certainly the protection/wil-der-ness/park issue in Utah is front and center on the national agenda and we'll find a way to work that out."
The secretary, looking worn from a nonstop schedule of stops around the West, said the debate will not be easy. And if the current polemics over land-use reform are any indication, he was right.
During Tuesday evening's questioning, Babbitt took shots from all sides but firmly defended his ideas, particularly his oft-repeated call for finding consensus.
When Ken Rait, spokesman of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, accused Babbitt of being "at the beck and call of Western governors," the secretary became indignant.
"I reject your premise," Babbitt retorted. "This notion that Bruce Babbitt is . . . somehow the handmaiden of the miners and the ranchers and Western governors is nonsense. They're all in the straits on the other side saying I'm the lapdog of the environmental movement."
That one side must win out at the exclusion of the other is "the old way of doing business in the West," Babbitt said.
"We're all living together on this landscape," he said. "We can accommodate each other's needs in some reasonable measure."
Babbitt was equally disdainful of a Farm Bureau spokeswoman's suggestion that his ecosystem management proposals were a socialist plot.
"That's pure fantasy," Babbitt said. "I'll leave you to your imagination, but that's all just fantasy."
Responding to criticism that the range reform proposals are not the will of the people, Babbitt said that Congress in 1978 expressly directed the Interior secretary to be more aggressive on range reform.
Babbitt promised his grazing reform package, which includes a doubling of grazing fees on public land and possibly a rebate to ranchers who demonstrate good stewardship, will be in place by the end of this year.
The secretary also sparred with Cathy Benedetto, spokeswoman for the Women's Mining Coalition, who chided him for making inflammatory comments about the mining industry.
"I've been a little shrill at times about this," Babbitt admitted, "but we just have to get a new mining system and this is the year to do it."
Noting that a gold mining company in Nevada was able to obtain $10 billion worth of gold for nothing, Babbitt said reform of the 1872 Mining Law is long overdue.
"If that company were mining on my land, don't you think they'd be paying me a royalty? Why is it they don't pay any royalty at all on public land?"
Babbitt said he's confident that a conference committee of the House and Senate will work out a strong compromise bill on mining reform.