No more wilderness studies, please.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's call for a new inventory of 2.6 million acres of potential Utah wilderness ought to be nipped in the bud or put on somebody's endangered species list.The first wilderness evaluation in Utah, conducted in the 1970s and '80s, resulted in Bureau of Land Management designation of 3.2 million acres having "wilderness characteristics." Those criteria were based on the 1964 Wilderness Act. They required that a parcel be over 5,000 acres and free of roads or other man-made developments. After sifting through the 3.2 million acres and determining conflicts with potential mineral and water development, the BLM settled on a wilderness recommendation to Congress of 1.95 million acres.
That figure was vehemently contested by environmentalists, who are pushing for a much larger designation of close to 5.7 million acres, one-tenth of all land in the Beehive State. Utah's congressional delegation, meanwhile, has backed a 2.1 million-acre proposal that was closely in line with the BLM's recommendation.
With such divergent recommendations, neither side has prevailed in Congress. And in the meantime, the bureau is required to manage all of the original 3.2 million acres as wilderness.
Babbitt and the Clinton administration have been supportive of the larger wilderness designation, over the objections of Utah's congressmen and local governments, ranchers and others.
The interior secretary and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, clashed in April when Hansen challenged Babbitt to find 5 million acres in all of Utah that would legally qualify as wilderness.
Babbitt has taken the challenge and ordered a six-month inventory of 2.6 million acres not included in the original 3.2 million. He has promised to send a team of federal career professionals from throughout the BLM to spearhead the study and has pledged cooperation with local government officials.
"We're from the federal government, and we're here to help" sounds nice in theory. But in fact, the study is apt to be skewed in Babbitt's favor. The Beehive State's congressional delegation is in a better position to look out for the needs and best interests of the state while being attuned to environmental concerns at home and in Washington. Their compromise measure ought to be moved forward.
Potential wilderness land in Utah has been studied to death for 20 years, and one more inventory isn't likely to change anyone's mind.