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Wilderness and political games

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When it comes to issues involving Utah's scenic areas, the political chicanery is hard to follow. Washington has lately seemed mired in a muddle of broken promises, tricks and deceit.

What is now known, for example, is that the Clinton administration was less than truthful with Utah's political leaders when deciding to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument last fall. In truth, the administration had talked to people from virtually every state around Utah, despite the assertion that the monument was a closely guarded White House secret.No big deal, according to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who once was governor of Arizona. He said he wouldn't have minded being kept in the dark about such a thing when he was governor. Remarkably, he even kept a straight face when saying this.

The truth, of course, is that Clinton needed the monument to gain support among environmentalists in an election year, and Utahns would only have gotten in his way. His decision to bypass state officials (he wouldn't even come to the state to announce the monument's creation) violated a basic tenet of representative government - those who are affected by a decision ought to at least be informed.

Now two Republican senators are attempting a political maneuver to get their way on a sensitive roads issue. They have tacked it onto an important flood-relief bill. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett have legitimate concerns about whether the federal government intends to honor age-old claims to rights of way in their respective states. But attaching that onto the end of a flood relief bill is not the way to go.

The bill would provide $5.5 billion in aid to victims of floods in the Midwest. Despite claims that this is the way politics works in Washington, the alleviation of suffering ought to be exempt from such antics.

In their defense, however, such tactics wouldn't be necessary if the administration would allow this, and other Western issues, to be decided on merits.

More than 130 years ago, Congress passed a law allowing local governments to put roads in otherwise unreserved federal lands. That law was repealed in 1976 but with the understanding that existing claims would be honored. Now, the Clinton administration wants local governments to prove those claims existed legitimately before the law was repealed. They worry the opponents of wilderness will cut new roads across sensitive lands and forever destroy their value as wilderness.

In Utah, an estimated 5,000 such claims exist. Some of them would run straight through the new monument. Still, the state, not Washington, should be empowered to decide which roads are necessary for local economies and which claims are bogus. Utahns have suffered enough at the hands of an insensitive administration.

Bennett said the Clinton administration promised Western senators it would leave the roads issue alone, then subsequently violated that promise.

To his credit, Bennett has persuaded fellow senators to cut off all funding for implementing the new rules. That is a legitimate way to draw attention to this issue. But the people of Utah won't be well-served until an orderly democratic process replaces deceit and political innovation as the principal mode for deciding such issues.