The results are in, and they are big. About 8.5 million acres big.
On Wednesday, the Utah Wilderness Coalition unveiled the 8.5-million-acre wish list generated by its citizens' wilderness inventory of Bureau of Land Management lands during an open house at the University of Utah.More than 800 people filled the Olpin Student Union Building to cheer the results of what some believe is "the most extensive citizens' inventory in United States history" and to increase the political pressure on Utah's Republican majority to retract its opposition.
Areas added Wednesday to the wilderness list were mostly from the west desert and the Great Basin regions - approximately 2 million new acres.
All told, the 8.5 million acres are 2.8 million more than the coalition's last wilderness proposal of 5.7 million acres and about 6.5 million acres more than the amount proposed in various bills by Utah's congressional delegation.
Areas added to the wilderness wish list include Tule Valley in the west desert, Pilot Peak range bordering Nevada, Dome Plateau near Moab, and the central Price River and Hammond Canyon areas in central Utah.
Hundreds of volunteers donated thousands of hours over the past two years walking Utah's backcountry to identify those lands that remain unmarred by development and meet the legal definition found the 1964 Wilderness Act. The results of that survey have been released piecemeal over the past several weeks, and Wednesday's open house was the last of four in Utah.
The Utah Wilderness Coalition will now conduct open houses in other major metropolitan areas like San Francisco and Boston.
"Because of this inventory, Utah is now a model and the nation is paying attention," said Bob Bingham, field director of the Sierra Club, one of the more than 150 environmental organizations that comprise the Utah Wilderness Coalition.
One person who is paying attention is Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, who was the first major elected official to attend a Utah Wilderness Coalition open house. The Republican delegation has been adamantly opposed to the designation of big wilderness, and Cook cautioned that "what decision is reached should be based on science and facts," not mythology and hearsay.
Cook then surprised everyone by announcing he was withdrawing his support of a GOP proposal for the San Rafael Swell that included some wilderness, but not nearly as much as wilderness advocates had wanted.
"I cannot support or vote for the San Rafael bill," he said to a roar of cheers from the crowd.
"It's a huge announcement," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Having a Republican member of Congress from Utah say he will vote against the San Rafael bill is huge because it provides a great deal of cover for other Republicans from outside the state."
However, Cook's lack of support for the San Rafael bill should not be interpreted as unequivocal support for 8.5 million acres of wilderness. In fact, Cook would not com-mit to how much wilderness should be designated.
Even though Cook's district, which comprises much of Salt Lake County, is largely supportive of big wilderness, Utah's first-term congressman could face withering opposition from Utah's veteran Rep. Jim Hansen, who has repeatedly thwarted attempts at designating anything more than 2 mil-lion acres of Utah wilderness.
The BLM is conducting its own re-inventory to see which wild lands meet wilderness criteria. BLM director and Utah native Pat Shea, who was in Park City Wednesday for a conference of university deans of agriculture, said the inventory is progressing without interference or influence from either side.
The results of the Utah Wilderness Coalition inventory have not and will not influence BLM staffers, he said. "Our people know what the (wilderness) law is, and they are quietly going about doing their jobs."
Cook's opponent, Democrat Lily Eskelsen, promised that if she is elected she will co-sponsor a big wilderness bill to protect every last acre of undeveloped public land in Utah.
However, as long as Republicans control Congress, big wilderness will likely never get beyond committee debate.