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The Wilderness Preservation Act turned 30 on Saturday.

While environmentalists nationwide are commemorating what for them was - and remains - a rare victory in Congress, not everyone is singing "Happy Birthday."That's especially true in Utah, where the term "wilderness" evokes reactions almost as varied as the landscape itself.

Wilderness is, by far, the state's single most divisive environmental debate, and the polemic isn't cooling off.

"It's poised to get really big," says Lawson LeGate, regional representative for the Sierra Club.

Once the sweeping California Desert Protection Act passes Congress, "Utah wilderness is going to come up to the front burner and be the major focus of wilderness efforts in the country," Lawson says.

Up for grabs are millions of acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands in southern Utah.

But if environmental groups think they're going to get any large wilderness bills through Congress, they're crazy, says Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.

"I would personally stop it," says Hansen, who sits on the House's Natural Resources committee.

The only way the committee will approve a bill is if "there's unanimity of thought" among Utah's governor and congressional delegation, Hansen says. Unanimity seems unlikely given that Utah politicians have been slow lately to say exactly where they stand in the wilderness debate.

How much and where?

It all began on Sept. 3, 1964, when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Preservation Act, which immediately set aside 9 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land as wilderness - a designation that allows some grazing but no "extractive" enterprises, such as mining or timber harvesting.

Further, the law, which declared it public policy to secure "an enduring resource of wilderness" for present and future generations, directed federal land-management agencies to inventory their lands for possible designation as wilderness.

Today's debate, then, is not on whether the country should have wilderness but on which lands are suitable for wilderness protection.

By the early 1980s, the Forest Service had completed its inventory in Utah. Congress eventually passed bills that have set aside more than 800,000 acres of Utah forests as wilderness.

The BLM, meanwhile, completed its review of its 22 million acres in 1984, setting aside 3.2 million acres of "wilderness study areas." Of those, the BLM recommended just under 2 million acres be designated as wilderness.

Only Congress, however, can make wilderness happen. And Congress is still divided on wilderness, mainly along liberal and conservative lines.

Hansen, a conservative, has said he supports just over 1 million acres of wilderness but has no bill currently before Congress. He and Orton are crafting a bill that would set about 1.2 million acres of wilderness and about 1.8 million acres of National Conservation Areas, which have fewer restrictions.

Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, says she cannot support the Hansen-Orton effort because it doesn't provide for enough wilderness. To the chagrin of environmentalists, however, she has not pushed for any specific legislation.

So the coalition turned to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who introduced HR1500, which was first introduced several years ago by former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. The bill proposes 42 wilderness areas comprising 5.7 million acres of BLM land.

Though LeGate says the bill is gaining momentum, with more than 70 co-sponsors, Hansen says it will go nowhere.

"Co-sponsors don't mean squat. (The bill) is totally off the wall," Hansen says, complaining that the proposal contains lands that don't fit the requirement of being "untrammeled by man."

"There just really isn't 5.7 million acres out there that qualifies as wilderness," Hansen says.

Environmentalists strongly disagree and have vowed never to budge from their goal of at least 5.7 million acres.

HR1500 is based on an independent study by the Utah Wilderness Coalition, comprised of about 30 public-interest groups, including the 300,000-member Sierra Club and the feisty 10,000-member Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The coalition - which describes its proposal in a 400-page coffee-table book called "Wilderness on the Edge" - conducted its own study because it says the BLM's inventory was flawed.

"Remote and beautiful expanses of slickrock and sagebrush were excluded from wilderness study for the most spurious reasons," the book states. "And in direct violation of its own policy, the BLM repeatedly dropped lands with potential - real or imagined - for mineral development."

Compromise not working

The deadlock between the Hansen view and the Hinchey bill led Project 2000, a private group dedicated to improving Utah's future, to organize a negotiation effort last year among congressional leaders, rural interests and environ-mentalists.

The wilderness coalition has basically boycotted it.

"(Project 2000) is a very flawed process and not one likely to produce a suitable result," says LeGate, arguing that state and local interests have too much clout in the Project 2000 effort. "We want to get it in a national mode and stick to the principle that these are America's lands and not just Utahns.' "

Noting that they already have 3.2 million acres of de-facto wilderness in the wilderness study areas, environmentalists are in no hurry to compromise.

Finding common ground in the wilderness issue may be as difficult as it is in the abortion debate, simply because of ideology. For many environmentalists, wilderness is a moral issue.

For many rural Utahns, it's a matter of survival, Hansen says.

"It would decimate their economies," he says. "Grazing goes, mining goes, cutting of trees goes. Pretty soon, it becomes so restrictive that you can't do anything in there."

But that argument is not as pervasive as it once was in rural Utah. Grand County Councilman Charlie Peterson wrote in the Moab Times-Independent newspaper last month that wilderness is no threat to an area dependent on millions of tourists seeking natural beauty.

"We won't save our economies by bulldozing more roads," he wrote. "We'll do it by protecting the already-overcrowded lands."