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BLM'S WILDERNESS OPTION LOOKING BETTER ALL THE TIME

Utah's counties have collectively expressed their opinions on how much public land should be designated as wilderness within the state. To no one's surprise, they came up with a figure well below any other proposal under consideration.

Their recommendation, made public over the weekend, of slightly less than 1 million acres should be considered one end of the extreme in the seemingly endless debate over how much land should have restricted access and use.The other end is represented by the 5.7 million acre proposal of Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. - one championed by most environmentalists.

That leaves the Bureau of Land Management's own proposal of slightly less than 2 million acres as an acceptable, moderate solution.

Wilderness has been an emotional issue in rural Utah, where many residents view restrictions on the use of such land as a threat to their economic well-being. The federal government owns more than two-thirds of the state's land.

Rural residents made their feelings on the issue abundantly clear through their recommendations.

Gov. Mike Leavitt and the state's congressional delegation have set a tight timeframe for drafting a wilderness bill they hope to introduce in both the House and Senate by June 1. They had asked counties to hold public hearings and come up with their own wilderness recommendations by April 1. They explicitly told county commissioners that a recommendation of zero wilderness in any county would not be acceptable.

However, two counties - Beaver and Wayne - ignored those instructions and refused to concede even one acre.

Clearly, Congress never will find a compromise acceptable to all sides in this debate. The current process may be a bit too hasty for some, but it is doubtful county commissioners would have reached a different recommendation had they been given more time.

Environmentalists already have made their position known. Hinchey's bill is virtually identical to one previously sponsored by former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. The governor and congressional delegation has scheduled regional hearings later this month, allowing residents from various parts of the state to present their opinions and arguments.

This is not a new debate. When the hearings are over, the governor and delegation should have a clear understanding of all sides, enabling them to write a bill that is reasonable.

The BLM proposal came after 14 years of study, hearings and debate. While it may not be a perfect recommendation, it represents a reasonable position and should be given strong consideration as that bill is written.