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BABBITT ORDERS NEW STUDY ON POTENTIAL WILDERNESS

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Taking advantage of an angry dare last April by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has ordered a new study of whether millions more acres of wilderness should be created in Utah beyond what state leaders propose.

That makes Hansen even angrier than when he blurted out the dare in a hearing that Babbitt could not identify 5 million acres of land that would legally qualify as wilderness in Utah - even though Babbitt has said that's how much should be created there.Hansen says Babbitt's resulting new study to evaluate lands not heretofore formally studied for possible wilderness designation is illegal, likely will be unfair and will bring the wrath of the Republican Congress if Babbitt proceeds.

"It's just braggadocio for the media," Hansen said.

But Babbitt has ordered formation of a team for a six-month inventory of 2.6 million acres that were not included in the original 3.2 million acres of Utah Wilderness Study Area evaluated by the Bureau of Land Management in the 1970s and '80s.

The BLM said only 1.95 million acres of that area met requirements under the 1964 Wilderness Act for protection - but Babbitt and environmental groups have said that was flawed and unduly influenced by former Republican administration politics.

Meanwhile, Utah's Republican members of Congress pushed a bill this year to protect about 2.1 million acres. And Babbitt and Vice President Al Gore have insisted that the acreage should be much greater - around 5 million acres.

Environmental groups and their supporters in Congress have also long pushed for 5.7 million acres - or creating wilderness on a tenth of all land in Utah.

Hansen said the 1964 Wilderness Act requires that wilderness be untrammeled by man, including not having any roads, power lines or buildings. But he said such structures exist on much of the acreage that Babbitt and environmentalists want protected.

Because of that, he lost his temper with Babbitt in a hearing in April when Babbitt reiterated that the administration insists on about 5 million acres of wilderness.

An upset Hansen bet that Babbitt could not find such qualifying acreage, and added, "Rather than shout at each other, why don't you just come up with something that shows where it is."

Babbitt then said, "I will consider that a request to revoke the prior study" by the BLM that recommended 1.95 million acres.

Hansen at the time said Babbitt has the right to do that and order a new study without permission of Congress. However, Hansen now says that he and Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, sent Babbitt a letter saying he cannot legally reject the previous study or proceed with a new one.

Babbitt disagrees and said in a letter to Hansen that the Federal Land Policy Management Act allows him to "prepare and maintain on a continuing basis an inventory of all lands and their resource and other values" - which he says includes looking at their potential wilderness value.

Interior Department spokesman John Wright said a small team of career professionals from throughout the BLM - which will be headed by the associate director of the BLM's office in Colorado - will conduct the study and will work closely with officials in Utah.

He said the team is not yet complete, and he does not know if any Utah officials will be included on it.

Babbitt said in a letter to Hansen that the study will be fair, and will be designed to help settle wilderness fights.

"This team is explicitly instructed to apply the same legal criteria that were used in the original inventory, and to consider each area on its own merits, solely to determine whether it has wilderness characteristics," Babbitt wrote.

"The team will have no particular acreage target to meet; the chips will fall where they may," Babbitt said.

He added that findings will be used to discuss which additional areas, if any, should protected as if they were wilderness pending final action by Congress - or whether the legal definition of wilderness should be expanded.

Hansen said he doubts the study would be fair - and feels it would seek to justify the 5 million acre claims made by the Clinton administration.

"You can get to 5 million acres - but only if you go over roads, homes, towns, power lines and everything that you're not supposed to," he said.

Hansen added that he has discussed the situation with Republican congressional leaders, and they feel it is an example of Babbitt being impossible to deal with on public lands issues.

Still, Babbitt wrote, "For nearly two decades there has been quarreling about how much BLM land in Utah has wilderness characteristics. I hope that by taking this step of conducting a credible profession study of the ground involved, we can move toward resolution of this contentious issue."

Environmental groups say they are cautiously optimistic about Babbitt's new study.

"We see every inventory as a necessary step in resolving this contentious issue. However, the BLM did a wilderness study in Utah once before and messed it up," said Ken Rait, issues director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

"Everyone ought to support this move because it important to get the facts out on the table," he said.