clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Squeezing the decadelong Bureau of Land Management wilderness debate into a few months couldn't be more ambitious.

Satisfying the many splintered factions - politicians, environmentalists, off-roaders, bureaucrats, ranchers, urbanites - might prove impossible. The wilderness debate heated up in January when Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Utah congressional delegation announced they want to resolve the issue this year."I think it's a fairly optimistic endeavor," Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, told students at Brigham Young University Tuesday. The meeting drew representatives from several of the factions and some who simply want to understand what's going on.

Although not far apart philosophically, the five-member delegation, four of whom are Republican, have struggled in the past to come up with wilderness legislation all can live with.

"I don't know if I'm going to agree with them on everything. I don't know if they're going to agree with what I'm looking at," Orton said of his colleagues.

Orton is proposing to broadly label about 3 million acres - mostly in the San Rafael Swell and Escalante canyons - as "national conservation areas" containing 1.2 million acres of wilderness. Conservation areas would provide for more uses and access than would wilderness areas. He's basing the wilderness designation primarily on the statutory criteria that at least 5,000 acres be contiguous and the land be roadless.

"The most significant conflict is roads," he said. Orton drew his wilderness boundaries to exclude any path, trail, byway or scar that was considered a road on U.S. Geological Survey or county maps since 1976.

The congressman believes his plan "comes close" to satisfying both politicians and environmentalists.

But Ted Buehler of the campus club BYU Eco-Response said Orton isn't listening and his proposal is no compromise.

"It really doesn't say much about the preserving of lands. It's preserving of uses," he said. Buehler favors the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal to designate 5.7 million acres of wilderness. He told Orton that people want southern Utah protected because of its beauty.

Orton said that isn't enough to make it wilderness. "There are conflicts. You have to make judgments. Applying the statute is different than saying it's all lovely and beautiful," he said.

Dave Jarvis, who represents the Utah Four Wheel Drive Association, wasn't impressed with what Orton had to say.

"It's not about roads or anything else. It's about legal rights," he said after the meeting.

Jarvis said trying to resolve the issue with a fast-track approach won't work. "Nothing intelligent can be done in six months," he said.

While meetings scheduled through-out the state this week are to gather public opinion, people not affiliated with special-interest groups don't have much of a grasp on the issue.

Bill Cooley, a doctoral candidate in engineering, said he was drawn to Tuesday's meeting to educate himself. "I don't understand all the issues," he said.

Cooley said he wants wilderness areas preserved for future generations, but he doesn't want access cut off to those who can't get there on foot or horseback. Roads don't bother him. "It doesn't ruin my experience to go for a hike and come across a dirt road," he said.