Like an old coin or a vintage automobile, says Steve Nielsen, wilderness is a treasure - something that grows more valuable as it becomes more rare.
Nielsen, of Sandy, was one of more than 100 people who on Wed-nes-day pleaded that large tracts of U.S. Bureau of Land Manage-ment land in Utah be set aside as federally protected wilderness.The occasion was a public meeting hosted by Rep. Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah, and the Salt Lake County Commission - a meeting in which, after much complaining, residents of the Wasatch Front finally got to speak their minds.
"I would hope we would have the wisdom to preserve these lands, not for short-term gain but for future generations," said Salt Lake County resident Robert Sum-ner.
The wilderness debate, simmering for more than a decade, was stoked in January, when Utah's governor and congressional delegation asked rural county commissioners to submit wilderness proposals by April 1. The delegation and governor plan to draft a bill and introduce it in Congress by June 1.
The rural commissioners have met their deadline, recommending about 1 million acres. That figure is half what the BLM proposes and less than a fifth of what most environmentalists want.
Wilderness supporters from the beginning have criticized the process for giving too much decision-making power to rural politicians, who represent less than 20 percent of the population and who are traditionally anti-wilderness.
Environmentalists also complained that no meetings were held along the heavily populated Wasatch Front prior to April 1.
But at Wednesday's meeting, which lasted more than four hours, it was apparent that wilderness advocates were trying to make up the lost ground.
Of the approximately 120 people who spoke, a huge majority - about 75 people - spoke in favor of the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal that calls for 5.7 million acres of wilderness, which amounts to about 10 percent of the state.
Another 10 people spoke in favor of an Utah Wilderness Association proposal of 3 million acres. Eighteen people spoke for wilderness generally, while one person called for 16 million acres.
Only about 10 people spoke out against wilderness Wednesday.
One of those was Rainer Huck, president of the Utah Trail Machine Association, who called wilderness part of a "sinister agenda" by environmentalists to exclude the majority of Americans from the public lands.
History shows that wilderness "reduces livestock grazing and hurts local economies," said Russ Hendricks, of the Utah Farm Bureau.
But the anti-wilderness voices were quickly drowned out by arguments that federal wilderness designation is the best way to assure long-term protection for the lands, the critters, the ecosystems and, ultimately, humankind.
Though the pro-wilderness pleas likely didn't fall on deaf ears Wednesday, they may have fallen into the laps of powerless politicians.
The Salt Lake County Commission has no jurisdiction in the wilderness debate. The best it could do is pass a resolution urging Congress to support a certain proposal. But only Commissioner Randy Horiuchi, the lone Democrat, expressed any sentiment against the current wilderness process and in favor of more acreage than recommended by the rural counties.
As for freshman Rep. Wald-holtz, how she plays her wild card may determine her political future.
On one hand, she has strong ideological ties to fellow Republican leaders, who will likely try to pressure her into supporting a small wilderness bill.
If she does, she risks being perceived as anti-environment - a perception that, in the state's most environmentally active district, could hurt chances for re-election.