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Is Clinton trying to spring wilderness surprise on Utah?

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, it was an election-year surprise that few Utahns (even Democrats) saw coming until the end.

Now, once-burned-twice-shy Republicans say they see signs of another move coming where Clinton may seek to appease environmentalists by stopping development on even more Utah land than did that immense 1.7 million-acre national monument.They worry the administration is trying to speed creation of 2.6 million acres of new Utah wilderness study areas before the next election to help environmentalist Vice President Al Gore.

Wilderness study areas are treated as if they were formal wilderness until Congress acts either to remove the designation or bestows permanent protection.

Utah already has 3.2 million acres of such WSAs -- and opposing sides long have been at a stalemate over changing their status.

The Bureau of Land Management recently completed a controversial "reinventory" of its Utah lands, which proposed protecting the additional 2.6 million acres -- for a total of 5.8 million acres of WSAs.

Republicans say they see several signs that this is "a political gimmick" designed only to hustle favor among environmentalists.

First is that the 5.8 million acres of overall WSAs that would result are -- by strange coincidence -- almost identical to the 5.7 million acres that wilderness groups pushed for years in their old HR1500, the "Red-Rock Wilderness Bill." (However, this year, they increased their wish list to more than 8 million acres).

"It's clear the administration included only lands that were in HR1500, a proposal pushed only by wilderness advocates that has never been seriously considered by Congress," complains Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Another sign it is a gimmick is that the BLM reinventory was born amid some political grandstanding (on both sides).

In a hearing where Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said wilderness proposals by the Utah delegation were far too small and should be more in the neighborhood of 5 million acres, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, angrily bet Babbitt that he couldn't find 5 million acres of worthy acreage in Utah.

Babbitt immediately proclaimed that was an order to reinventory Utah lands. Utah counties tried unsuccessfully to block it in court, but Babbitt was allowed to proceed.

"It wasn't done properly. They used high-altitude aircraft photos. That caused them to miss hundreds of man-made features on the ground," Hatch complains. Of course, wilderness areas by law are supposed to be untrammeled by man.

He said an earlier BLM inventory performed professional on-ground surveys (although Babbitt says it was driven by politics). Hatch said, "This new process tarnishes the BLM in the West. It turns professional land managers into political tools."

Hatch and others also worry about other signs, including that the BLM in hearings about the proposal wouldn't allow a permanent, formal record to be made of questions raised.

"They're moving at a lightning pace, and I think they're trying to complete it before the next election," Hatch said.

Of course, the administration scoffs at such complaints. Interior Department spokesman John Wright said, "The secretary is interested in how best to preserve and protect these areas. We are looking for public input."

If a railroad job were in the works, how would Utah politicians block it?

The answer may be the tentative deal that Babbitt and Gov. Mike Leavitt struck to create about a million acres of formal wilderness in the West Desert.

Alan Freemyer, staff director of Hansen's Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, notes no final deal will come unless extra land proposed for new WSAs in that area is withdrawn from consideration.

That would allow some permanent wilderness to be formed -- giving a win to environmental and conservation groups -- and avoiding other vast new wilderness protection, giving counties, ranchers and miners a win as they seek limited development opportunities.

All that should give Utah plenty of reason to pursue working out details of the Babbitt-Leavitt deal. Otherwise, more vast wilderness protection is probably coming -- and it should be no surprise this time.

Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at leed@dgs.dgsys.com