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Lest conservationists grow complacent over their victory this year in the battle over Utah wilderness, remember this: A still-rabid anti-government crowd would turn the tide if it could.

Witness the appearance in Salt Lake on Wednesday by Joseph L. Bast, a nationally known libertarian who runs a Chicago-area think tank. He told a small but admiring local audience that mainstream environmentalism in the 1990s is nonsense."It's essential we change the direction of the environmental movement," said Bast. "These guys still trust the government to protect the environment."

Who better to do the job?

The private sector, said Bast, who is executive director of a 12-year-old organization called the Heartland Institute, known for its conservative bent and promotion of libertarian values ranging from the abolition of mandatory seatbelt use to the privatization of public schools. The group lobbies some 7,600 state legislators of various rank around the country and labors to influence media coverage of public issues.

It was environmental policy and how it is disseminated that Bast railed against Wednesday in his noon speech to the fledgling Sutherland Institute, a 1-year-old Salt Lake think tank that aspires to mirror Heartland's work.

Bast lambasted environmental groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club for scaring the public and said federal lands would be better managed by private interests. He argued that talk radio is a better conduit of information than mainstream news organizations.

"There are no ecological catastrophes on the horizon," said Bast, pooh-poohing recycling, new auto-pollution controls, overpopulation, deforestation, ozone depletion and the dangers of pesticides.

The widely revered notion of ecosystem balance is "an artificial concept," said Bast.

The disappearance of some species is only natural: "To imagine you can stop the process of extinction is pure madness," he said.

None of his 30 or so listeners questioned Bast's assertions, and in a brief question-and-answer session one member of the audience maligned the moral values of mainstream environmentalists, calling their beliefs "anti-Christian."

Bast exhorted his listeners to "get informed" and said the best way to do so was to read his book, "Eco-Sanity," which was published two years ago to little notice.

"Buy two or three," he urged.

He also asked his audience to write their lawmakers to challenge popular environmental ethics and to make a habit of penning similar letters to local newspaper editors.

Finally, Bast said the country - ecologically speaking - is in better shape today than ever, though he failed to credit federal environmental mandates of the past 30 years for any of the improvements.

"The air is getting cleaner, the water is getting cleaner . . . forests are expanding."