Mining, timbering and ranching have been a way of life in rural Utah since the days the first Mormon wagons rolled south from Salt Lake City.

But according to wilderness advocates, generations of development have destroyed much of Utah's scenic backcountry, and now the remainder is threatened by strip mines, oil and gas development and needless road construction to facilitate development.The threat of development has now prompted the politically powerful Wilderness Society to join the contentious Utah wilderness debate by issuing a report naming Utah's canyon country as one of America's 15 most endangered wild places.

"Turning these red-rock canyons into strip mines and other quick-buck, boom-and-bust projects would be incredibly short-sighted," said Pamela Eaton, four corners states regional director for the Wilderness Society.

"Some of our most spectacular natural treasures can be found in Utah, and we should have the good sense to pass them on to future generations just as they were passed on to us," she said, adding that Utah wilderness has now become a top priority of the Wilderness Society.

The Wilderness Society has renewed its pitch for legislation designating 5.7 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands in Utah as wilderness. It also offers its support for the re-inventory being conducted by the Utah Wilderness Coalition that could expand that wilderness total to 9 million to 10 million acres - almost half of the 22 million acres administered by the BLM in Utah.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition will hold the last of four public open houses at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Olpin Ballroom on the University of Utah campus. The coalition has unveiled portions of its wilderness proposal at each of three open houses in Moab, Provo and Ogden.

"The outpouring of public support for the process has been tremendous," said Tom Price, spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "People are hungry for more information."

The final open house will reveal the coalition's surveys in Utah's west desert and in northwestern Utah. Those areas were largely ignored during the initial inventory more than a decade ago.

The latest "citizens wilderness" proposal is the result of thousands of hours donated by several hundred volunteers who traipsed through millions of acres of backcountry to photo-document the presence of roads, fences, mines, power lines and any other evidence of human development that would disqualify an area for designation as wilderness.

What they found was vast areas of the state that qualified as wilderness but had been missed during the original inventory that identified 5.7 million acres. That 5.7 million-acre proposal has been the numerical symbol of the wilderness debate for the past decade.

Utah's congressional delegation, as well as state officials and county governments, have fiercely opposed the designation of large tracts of Utah as wilderness. The delegation has proposed about 2 million acres of wilderness.

The BLM has recommended about 3 million acres of wilderness, but under political pressure from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the BLM also is conducting a re-inventory.

It is no coincidence and certainly not surprising that the Wilderness Society has weighed in on the re-inventory just as the Utah Wilderness Coalition is unveiling its new proposal. And it is unlikely the Wilderness Society's position will change the political landscape on the volatile issue.

Nor does the Wilderness Society report offer any new approaches to the deadlock over Utah wilderness.

But what the Wilderness Society brings to the table is the money and political clout that comes with a national membership of 200,000. In effect, the new proposal becomes a priority of national wilderness advocates, not just those in Utah.

"We looked at areas with exceptional wilderness qualities and those that were faced with imminent threat. Utah scored high on both scales," Eaton said. "Clearly, Utah has some of the most spectacular wilderness anywhere in the nation, and some of those areas are threatened. Some have already been lost (through recent development)."

The Wilderness Society report initially intended to highlight only those sections of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that are threatened with oil development. Some easing of that threat, as well as the proposed land exchange involving school trust lands, prompted a decision to broaden the listing of "most endangered" to include canyon environments outside the monument.

According to society president William H. Meadows, the report is intended to highlight those areas where "Mother Nature is still in charge" but that are threatened by development.

"We will have failed future generations if we can't protect these treasures," Meadows said. "It is our job to create a network of wild lands to provide not just recreational opportunity, but clean water and air, wildlife habitat and laboratories for the development of tomorrow's medicines."

Eaton said there will likely never be a consensus of something as politically contentious as Utah wilderness. But there is room for a lot more agreement than has been the case in the past.

That is why the wilderness advocates are now focusing on the protection of entire areas rather than acreage.

"We talk a lot about numbers, but ultimately we have to deal with the whole of what is left in Utah," Eaton said. "The sooner we can resolve the issue, the more intact a wilderness system we will have."