The debate over Utah wilderness proposals has now taken off into the wild blue yonder.
Some environmentalists believe the U.S. Air Force will try to stake claims to use or fly over as much Utah wilderness as it can."I'm concerned (Air Force officials) are going to continue their expansionist tendencies," said Steve Erickson, spokesman for Downwinders, a military watchdog group. "I want to smoke them out. . . . I want them to talk about what they are going to do."
Erickson's concerns come as Utah's governor and congressional delegation seek to settle the contentious, decade-long debate over how much U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Utah should be designated as federally protected wilderness.
The delegation, which is holding five regional meetings in Utah this week, plans to draft and introduce a wilderness bill in Congress by June 1.
In a letter to the governor and delegation, Erickson says Downwinders believes the military will press the delegation to ensure the bill allows the Air Force to continue low-level and supersonic overflights over wilderness areas as well as the placement of tracking, radar and threat-emitter systems in wilderness, even if it means building roads and helicopter landing pads inside the wilderness areas.
Downwinders' fears are not unfounded, said Scott Groene, spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, noting that the military recently constructed communications towers in two wilderness study areas in Juab and Millard counties.
The military, which has extensive test ranges in the Great Basin, procured language in wilderness bills in Nevada and California to protect existing and future flights over wilderness areas. And a bill drafted by Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, contains language that would protect the current military overflights over wilderness in Utah.
While recognizing the need for continued training operations in Utah, Downwinders is opposed to an expansion of those operations unless it's in the interests of national security and the Utah public.
"(We) will oppose inclusion of language in the Utah BLM wilderness bill exempting the military from its responsibilities to protect and minimize its impacts upon wilderness areas," Erickson says.
The Air Force officially is not opposed to Utah wilderness. But during a meeting March 31 at which the counties revealed their wilderness recommendations, a Tooele County commissioner read a letter from a Hill Air Force Base official, implying that wilderness designation could interfere with military activities.
"Airspace over the (Tooele County) areas in consideration (for wilderness) is heavily used for military training," wrote Bob Van Orman, director of environmental management at Hill. "USAF aircraft operations fly over all the proposed wilderness study areas and in some areas fly as close as 100 feet above the ground."
In an interview with the Deseret News, Van Orman said the Air Force has no plans to expand its training operations territory.
However, the Air Force does not want to be restricted from flying over wilderness areas or from installing communications equipment there, Van Orman said.
"Our range is the only remaining range where you can fly through canyons and have realistic conditions," he said. "If we're not allowed to operate in those areas, it will curtail what we do."
Regional meetings set
Utah's governor and congressional delegation are holding a series of regional meetings this week to collect public comment on wilderness:
- Price - Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., city building, 185 E. Main.
- Moab - Thursday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Star Hall, 201 E. Center.
- Cedar City - Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Haze Hunter Conference Center, 351 W. Center.
- Richfield - Friday, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., county courthouse, 250 N. Main.
- Salt Lake City - Saturday, Orson Spencer Hall, University of Utah.
In addition, Reps. Enid Waldholtz and Bill Orton are holding meetings of their own:
- Sandy - Wednesday, beginning at 5 p.m., Eastmont Middle School, 10100 S. 1300 East.
- Provo - Saturday, 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., county building, 100 E. Center.