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7 million acres of wilderness?

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There's trouble brewing in them thar hills. Specifically, Utah's scenic backcountry.

The contentious debate over how much of Utah's remote backcountry should be federally protected wilderness is once again heating up, and by next month it could be in full boil.Wednesday night, the Utah Wilderness Coalition will host the first in a series of public information meetings around the state to reveal the results of its survey of about 11 million acres of Utah lands. Until then, it is keeping secret the total amount of acreage that could be included within a new "citizens wilderness proposal."

Sources have told the Deseret News the number will likely be about 7 million acres - up substantially from the 5.7 million acres in the current Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal.

"We haven't added it up yet," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of more than 150 organizations that make up the coalition. "The technical review committee is still going over the 7.5-minute topographic maps and the 40,000 photographs to see what qualifies and what doesn't."

As of Tuesday, wilderness advocates were still pouring over the maps and associated documents trying to calculate exactly how much Utah land qualifies as wil-der-ness.

Whatever the number turns out to be, it is certain to rankle Utah's congressional delegation, state and county officials, and livestock, mining and timber interests. All have fiercely opposed the 5.7 million acre proposal as unrealistic and economically unsound.

So what do they think about a wilderness package with even more land protected from potential development?

"When the two sides are as polarized as they are, we should be talking negotiation and compromise, not polarizing the debate even further," said one aide to Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. "We didn't think the 5.7 (million acre) proposal was realistic, and now they want to up the ante? It goes to show they aren't all that serious about resolving the wilderness issue."

Don't expect state and local officials to take the conservationists' proposal too seriously. As long as Republicans control Congress, Utah's congressional delegation has proven it can thwart big wilderness bills backed by lawmakers from the East.

But state officials are closely watching as another wilderness scenario unfolds. A federal appeals court opened the door for the Department of Interior to conduct a new inventory of Utah lands to determine which lands qualify as wilderness. An earlier inventory identified about 3 million acres, but Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - an unabashed supporter of bigger wilderness - wants his land managers to give it a second look.

State officials have opposed a reinventory by the BLM, especially one they believe will have a predetermined 5.7-million-acre out-come.

The acreage debate aside, Matz and a small army of Utah wilderness advocates - some of them passionate novices, others who are scientists - are more confident than ever that their proposal for large-scale wilderness in the state is now supported by good science, sound public support and a rock-solid legal defense.

Some 250 volunteers armed with cameras have been scouring BLM lands throughout the state, documenting the existence of roads, four-wheel drive trails, power lines, fences, livestock ponds and any other evidence of human disturbance that might disqualify an area as wilderness.

Of the 22 million acres of BLM lands, half was rejected almost immediately because of those disturbances. The remaining 11 million acres was examined, re-examined and photographed to document wilderness qualities (or the lack of such qualities).

"Because so much time had passed since the last inventory (12 years), we knew there were areas that no longer qualified as wilderness and needed to be dropped from the inventory," Matz said. "And we knew there were areas that had not been looked at closely enough the first time that might well qualify as wilderness."

Matz admits the approach this time around was much more detailed and much more focused.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Wilderness talk

The public will have a chance to discuss the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal at a series of open houses. Each is at 7 p.m.:

- June 17 in the Moab Arts and Recreation Center.

- June 24 in the Provo High School Commons Room.

- July 1 in Ogden at a location to be announced.

- July 8 in Salt Lake City at a location to be announced.

Additional open houses are planned in San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Chicago and Boston.