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Keeping Congress from opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is one of the Top 2 priorities of the Sierra Club, the country's largest environmental group.

The other priority is defeating the Utah Republican wilderness bill."It's a scandalous proposal," says Robert Cox, president of the 564,000-member club.

Cox, a professor of communications at the University of North Carolina, was in town this week as part of a nationwide tour to spread the word that the bill - known as HR1745 in the House and S.884 in the Senate - will face stiff grassroots opposition from the Sierra Club's 63 chapters.

"This is more than a Utah issue . . . This has begun to be noticed by a lot of people throughout the country. People who have visited Utah are astonished that the Utah delegation is not at the forefront of wanting to protect these lands."

The Utah GOP bill would set aside 1.8 million acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land as wilderness, leaving the remaining 20 million acres of BLM land in Utah open to mineral development and off-road vehicle use.

Environmentalists argue that what's worse than the bill's small acreage figure is the fact that about 600,000 of the 1.8 million will be open to some development.

HR1745 has passed the House Resources Committee and is expected to go to a floor vote in early September. S.884 has yet to be voted on in sub-com-mittee.

Although HR1745 has moved rather smoothly thus far, Cox said he's hopeful it will face stiff opposition, noting that the anti-environmental fervor that characterized the first 100 days of Congress is beginning to wane.

"We've begun to see some real turning around of the mood. Some moderate Republicans are breaking with the leadership."

If the bills make it through Congress, the Sierra Club will push President Clinton to veto them. Environmentalists are not totally banking on Clinton, however, because he refused to veto a bill this month that opens many of the national forests to "salvage" logging.