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A RAY OF COMMON SENSE IN THE WILDERNESS DEBATE

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After years of political wrangling and insulting arrogance from environmental extremists, the common sense that flowed from U.S. District Judge Dee Benson last week was refreshing. Benson sensibly put a stop to the Clinton administration's notion of secretly expanding the wilderness issue in Utah, a notion that would have reopened a process that already has dragged through the decades like a cowboy with his foot caught beneath a buckboard.

In his seven-page written order released last week, Benson said what should have been obvious to all sides: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has no authority to conduct a wilderness reinventory. The law authorizing such an inventory expired in 1991, two days after the Bush administration recommended about 2 million acres of official wilderness in Utah.Not only that, the illegitimate process Babbitt concocted conveniently leaves out any comment from the people most affected - Utah's residents and its county and state governments. But then, disdain for local comment has been the modus operandi for the extremists who support designating 5.7 million acres of wilderness in the state.

That is why the process Gov. Mike Leavitt established last year, allowing all affected county governments to study and provide their own suggestions for wilderness designation, was such an affront to the extremists. It had the audacity to give credence to the opinions of everyday people with a stake in the outcome.

People who live in Utah's rural areas have inconvenient things, such as jobs and futures, to consider. They also have a jumbo-size distrust of the federal government - one that the sudden designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument last summer shows is not entirely undeserved. Not surprisingly, the counties recommended a combined total of slightly less than 1 million acres.

Recognizing that as unrealistic, the governor and Utah's congressional delegation settled on a more reasonable figure of slightly more than 2 million acres. Stubborn opponents decided to kill that measure with the help of movie star Robert Redford, someone who apparently has more influence than the affected Utah residents. Now, with Babbitt's help, they are trying to redefine the scope of potential wilderness under the guise of a "fact-finding effort."

And so the battle rages on.

It hasn't been a fight devoid of attempts at compromise and conciliation. But those attempts have been curiously one-sided. Leavitt recently proposed a four-point plan that would attempt to identify common ground and reach agreement. The people who want 5.7 million acres, however, have been noticeably quiet.

Benson's order stops Babbitt until the matter can be settled in court. Utahns should hope the judge that makes that decision has as much common sense.