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Clinton's proposal adds to wilds numbers game
Proposal sounds good but doesn't change anything

Pick a number, any number.

When all is said and done, the debate over Utah wilderness boils down to, quite simply, a numbers game. And the number proposed by wilderness advocates just keeps getting bigger: from 5.4 million acres to 5.7 million acres to 9.1 million acres.This week, President Clinton upped the ante even more, proposing to designate as wilderness another 700,000 acres within Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks, and in Cedar Breaks and Dinosaur national monuments.

"It's really not much of a story," said Vic Knox, state coordinator for the National Park Service. "Those lands are already being managed as wilderness, and there isn't much that would change."

Clinton's proposal, which is widely seen on both sides of the debate as a real political yawner, is essentially a resurrection of a proposal introduced in Congress in the 1970s.

Parks officials at that time conducted inventories of lands within national parks with wilderness qualities, and subsequent park management plans treated those lands as wilderness, even though Congress never did pass the legislation making the designation official.

"The only difference would be that if Congress enacted it (Clinton's proposal), it would be permanent. It would take an act of Congress to undo it," Knox said.

Under current policy, lands could be taken out of wilderness after public hearings and amendments to the park management plan -- a difficult but still easier process than an act of Congress.

Those embroiled in Utah wilderness debates had mixed reactions to Clinton's proposal. Tom Price, spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the proposal recognizes the public's concern that wilderness lands deserve further protection.

"It demonstrates an understanding that the best tool we have to protect our resources is wilderness," he said.

"Our focus is and will remain the unprotected Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas in Utah," he added. "But I think the coalition (of pro-wilderness environmental groups) appreciates enhanced protection for any wild places no matter when they are."

Gov. Mike Leavitt, who has brokered a BLM wilderness deal with the federal government for portions of Utah's west desert, had no official opinion on the Clinton proposal.

"We will stay focused on our own proposal," said Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Varela. "We do not really know yet what Clinton's proposal really means for Utah."

Ironically, Clinton's proposal shares one key element with Leavitt's own approach to resolving wilderness. Leavitt has proposed what he calls "incremental wilderness" -- an approach that would focus first on those areas of the state where there is little or no disagreement as to the wilderness qualities.

The process of designating those lands as wilderness would then help build trust among the warring factions to resolve more contentious debates.

By choosing wilderness inside national parks, Clinton has addressed almost 700,000 acres over which there is really no dispute.

"Is it (Clinton's proposal) really incremental wilderness?" Price said. "It doesn't address areas within the America's Redrock Wilderness Act (supported by wilds advocates), so I would think there's a big difference."

As in it won't affect advocates' push to get 9.1 million acres of BLM lands in Utah designated as wilderness.