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Some fear Utah wilds turning into `King’s Forest’

SHARE Some fear Utah wilds turning into `King’s Forest’

Rainer Huck sees a new version of the King's Forest emerging in Utah, "a place where the chosen few are allowed access, and the rabble will be stopped at the gate."

The new King's Forest is wilderness, said Huck, president of the Utah Shared Access Alliance, a citizen group that advocates continued access to millions of acres of public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.It is also a group adamantly opposed to wilderness designations, the most restrictive of the land management tools in the federal toolbox.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition has identified 8.5 million acres of BLM lands it believes qualify for designation as wilderness. It has launched a massive publicity campaign to garner support in Utah and in Congress for big wilderness to preserve what it says are the last remaining natural places in the state.

Whatever lands are eventually designated wilderness will certainly be closed to vehicles. Not just to the omnipresent pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles, but to motorcycles, bicycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and even wheelchairs.

"Utahns don't realize the impacts of wilderness will be huge," Huck said. "We're talking about the closure of thousands of miles of existing roads and the loss of traditional access to the public lands."

In the Henry Mountains area alone, there are 3,200 miles of roads within the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposed wilderness area.

To hear Huck tell it, hunters will still be allowed to hunt in wilderness areas, but they will have to use muscle power to haul out the game. Hikers and backpackers will find they have to walk many miles more just to reach the trail head where they once began their hikes. Bicyclists enamored with single-track trails and old two-tracks will be barred.

Huck estimates between 300,000 and 500,000 Utahns who participate in these kinds of recreational activities would be affected by the restricted access.

"A lot of people think wilderness will not apply to them," he said. "They don't realize that they will be kicked out of wilderness just like the ATV riders and the Jeeps."

Convincing the majority of Utahns that wilderness is a bad idea is going to be a tough sell for the 1,000-member Utah Shared Access Alliance. A poll by the Wilderness Coalition indicated three out of every four Utahns support the idea of setting aside huge chunks of the state as wilderness.

Even when the access restrictions were explained, Utahns responded overwhelmingly they wanted the lands protected.

Reversing that kind of public sentiment will be a monumental task, maybe an impossible one. The public generally has less-than-flattering perceptions of those who use off-road vehicles, and it's hard to generate much sympathy for noisy dirt-bikes and ATVs.

That perception, Huck believes, is by and large the creation of the media, which "uses warm and fuzzy words when discussing the issues of environmentalists." But when opposing points of view are expressed, "the words and connotations are always negative," he said.

If Huck and the other advocates of backcountry access are to be successful, they will first have to use the media to counter the effective nationwide campaign by conservationists who want to put the brakes on off-road vehicles.

It is no secret conservationists have targeted off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who have enjoyed generations of access to literally thousands of trails and dirt roads throughout Utah and other western states. Most of those trails were created through generations of repeated use, but they are not roads in the sense they are maintained with road graders.

The Wilderness Coalition proposal is based on the premise that because these trails and dirt roads are not really roads in the legal sense of the word, they can and should be closed to vehicles.

According to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, off-road vehicles are permitted on 85 percent of BLM lands in Utah, and "despite legal requirements to do so, the BLM does not monitor the increasingly alarming environmental damage" caused by off-road activities.

The environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Wild-lands Center for Preventing Roads recently released a report entitled "Trails of Destruction" that identified off-road vehicles as "a growing threat to our natural heritage of public lands."

The report attributes to off-roaders a litany of problems ranging from air and noise pollution to the spread of exotic weeds, erosion of streams and damage to wildlife habitat.

The report also maintains those who use motorized vehicles on these backcountry trails are a minority of those who use public lands, but that they receive a disproportionate share of taxpayer resources to support trail construction and maintenance.

"The overwhelming majority of trail users - hikers, equestrians, skiers and others - are being left in the dust of powerful, polluting, soil-ripping ORVs," the report states.

The report also maintains the off-highway vehicle lobby is well organized and generously financed by corporate giants like Exxon, American Petroleum Institute, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki.

Huck snickers at those claims. His group has no money to speak of, and no real organizational skills.

"Who are the fat cats?" Huck asked. "We can't afford television and newspaper ads, but they (Utah Wilderness Coalition) can. The media pretty much ignores us, but they can't seem to get enough of the coalition's fallacious argument that there is some kind of threat to public lands."

Huck sees nothing less than an insidious conspiracy by by those opposed to off-highway vehicles. And the result will be a giant reserve where "all prime recreation lands will be closed to all but those who have the strength and ability to hike long distances," he said.

"The fact is they cannot share the public resources and they do not want to share," he added. "And the off-roaders have been made scape-goats as a justification for wilderness."