Moab resident Esther Keyser holds up a travel magazine advertisement that touts Utah's abundance of "natural wonders," which are "unspoiled" by civilization.

"This was paid for by the Utah Travel Council," says Keyser, who spoke recently at a Grand County Council meeting on wilderness. "I ask you, does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?"The "right hand," of course, is the travel council, a state agency that attempts to lure people to Utah with the state's expansive scenery. The other hand, according to Keyser, is the rest of the state administration, which she believes is trying to thwart attempts to preserve Utah's wild places.

More specifically, she's talking about an initiative by Gov. Mike Leavitt this year to end the decadelong war over how much U.S. Bureau of Land Management land should be set aside as federally protected wilderness.

Leavitt had hoped for a treaty in which both sides could agree on wilderness boundaries.

What he seems to be getting, however, is another showdown in a dispute that continues to pit urbanites against rural natives, traditional land-use ideology against post-modern preservationist philosophy and fears of economic stagnation against fears of environmental loss.

The new year was barely a day old when Leavitt, flanked by members of Utah's congressional delegation, announced that they were prepared to work together to draft a wilderness bill this spring.

Under Leavitt's plan, by April 1 each county commission in counties affected by wilderness proposals will recommend how much BLM land should become wilderness. The governor and congressional delegation will then hold regional hearings on those recommendations, draft a bill and introduce it in both houses of Congress by June 1.

It's an ambitious plan that has drawn criticism from many sides.

"In the comments from both sides, it's come up that this is too quick a process," said Brooke Williams, a consultant to the governor's Office of Planning and Budget. "But the governor wants it done by June 1 and everyone's going to have to do it the best they can."

Almost everyone feels cramped for time because the wilderness debate involves more than drawing lines on a map. At issue are legal definitions of wilderness; livestock grazing questions; public rights-of-way; school trust lands; so-called "hard-release" language; mineral potential and water rights. (Please see accompanying story for a county-by-county look at wilderness.)

Not surprisingly, the criticism of the governor's process has come most vocally from environmentalists, who feel it's a quick-and-dirty way for wilderness foes to push a minimalist bill through the new Republican Congress.

"There is a coordinated effort among the Utah congressional delegation, the leadership of most Utah counties and the governor to deny protection to as much of the BLM lands as (they) can get away with," says Ivan Weber, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter.

Brad Barber, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget, disagrees with Weber's assessment.

"There's no way that anything has been predetermined on the outcome," Barber said. "Everyone's really interested in what the public has to say."

Though traditionally anti-wilderness county commissioners have been given a major role in shaping the wilderness bill, Barber said their recommendations will be just a part of the information used to develop the final bill.

In response to criticism that Utah's urban majority has been shut out of the public-input process, Barber said several meetings are being scheduled along the Wasatch Front.

While government leaders want the debate settled quickly, they face a long history of multilevel political positioning. Emotional rhetoric and differences of opinion are as large as the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael River.

Sparring with the BLM

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Preservation Act, which called for the lands untrammeled by humans to be protected in perpetuity. The first areas to be designated wilderness were mainly within the national forests.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which administers 22 million acres of 54-million-acre Utah, didn't start its wilderness review until after 1976.

In Utah, the BLM review became controversial almost as quickly as it began because BLM officials recklessly omitted large tracts of land from consideration.

Utah environmentalists appealed and won an addition of more than 800,000 acres to the BLM inventory for a total of 3.2 million acres of "wilderness study areas" and a BLM recommendation for 2 million acres to be designated as wilderness.

Still unsatisfied, various national and local environmental groups - now numbering 35 - formed the Utah Wilderness Coalition, which conducted its own inventory of public lands, recommending more than 5 million acres of BLM wilderness. That inventory is described in the 400-page, coffee-table-size book "Wilderness At The Edge."

The UWC's recommendation has since grown to 5.7 million acres - a proposal now in the form of HR1500, "the old Wayne Owens bill" that is now being sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, has publicly scorned HR1500 and Hinchey, saying the bill doesn't stand a chance in Congress, mainly because the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources is Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Young, whom environmentalists love to hate, has promised that no bill will be considered if it doesn't have the support of the state's congressional delegation.

Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, tried to get such a consensus late last year when he drafted a plan to designate 1.2 million acres of BLM land as wilderness and another 1.8 million acres as "national conservation areas," which are less protected than wilderness areas.

Orton's proposal so far has failed to stir much enthusiasm from either side. Orton has agreed to put the measure on hold, pending the outcome of Leavitt's wilderness initiative. In the meantime, however, Orton continues to campaign for his bill.

How green is Enid ?

An unknown quantity in the wilderness debate, someone who could influence any wilderness bill, is Rep. Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah, who has gained favor with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Waldholtz's district includes most of Salt Lake County's population, which is the most pro-wilderness in the state. A Deseret News poll last fall showed that 91 percent of Salt Lake County residents want some wilderness, with 53 percent of those favoring more than 2 million acres.

So far, though, Waldholtz has remained neutral on the size of a BLM wilderness bill.

"I don't believe in saying I'm for `x' number of acres," she said. "What I'm doing is looking at each of the proposals." She's also holding a county meeting of her own in Salt Lake City on April 12 to give Wasatch Front residents a chance to comment.

Waldholtz said she believes the BLM inventory is not perfect but she's using it as a starting point.

"I'm very open to being persuaded on each parcel," she said, noting that if an area meets the legal definition of wilderness, "we should protect it."

The congresswoman said she intends to "devote a great deal of time" to the wilderness debate to get it settled this year.

"There will be disagreements within the delegation, but I'm committing to working with them because it's in everyone's interest to come to some conclusions on this issue."

Saying they have compromised enough on Utah's wild lands, the Utah Wilderness Coalition shows no sign of settling for anything less than 5.7 million acres. The Leavitt initiative has breathed new life into their movement, which has resulted in a massive letter-writing and public-speaking campaign already.

If a "bad" wilderness bill does make it to Congress, environmentalists vow that Utah wilderness will become a national environmental issue, and the bill will be blocked.