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'Wilds neutral' bill has environmentalists howling

WASHINGTON -- Molly McUsic, counsel to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, admits she was "quite skeptical" she and Utah leaders could agree on any plan to protect Utah's San Rafael Swell.

But with hard work, they indeed achieved that minor miracle.Despite howls from environmental groups, McUsic endorsed for the Clinton administration last week a bill by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, to create both a national conservation area and a "western legacy district" in San Rafael.

The trick -- according to McUsic and Utah officials -- is they found a way to make the bill "wilderness neutral" in their eyes. But environmental groups say it almost surely will prevent creating all the wilderness they seek and are fighting it.

The bill does not include creation of any formal wilderness areas in San Rafael because arguments over how much to protect there had killed earlier versions in Congress.

Instead, the bill would create a four-year process for the Interior secretary to develop a management plan for the area, which may or may not create wilderness areas there. It seeks to involve all affected groups in the planning.

Meanwhile, the bill would immediately withdraw nearly 1 million acres from new mining, logging, off-road vehicle use and similar development and declare it a protected national conservation area.

That in turn would be included within a new 2.9 million acre "western legacy district" designed to coordinate tourism between dinosaur, rock art, ranching, outlaw, recreational and other locations on public and private lands.

"In the end, we came up with a bill we can support," McUsic told a hearing of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. "None of us got everything we want."

Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson -- chief architect of the plan -- said that while environmental groups complain the bill does not create any wilderness areas now, "that is the very point . . . (the bill) is wilderness neutral."

He added, "We have proposed that we first withdraw more than a million acres. Then with that protection in place, we establish a four-year planning process in which we develop the permanent management plan. . . . The result is protection within protection."

But environmental groups don't agree.

"Despite past and current acknowledgment of lands worthy of wilderness designation in the San Rafael Swell, (the bill) oddly calls for no designation of wilderness. Not a single acre," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

"We have seen San Rafael Swell wilderness proposals dwindle from small to smaller to nonexistent," he testified.

Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows said, "The San Rafael Swell area, which faces growing threats, deserves the highest level of protection Congress can afford -- designation as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System."

Subcommittee Chairman Jim Hansen, R-Utah, termed such "all-the-wilderness-we-want-or-else" opposition as coming from a few "extreme environmentalists" who "would rather misrepresent the facts and fund raise rather than solve a problem."

And Johnson said, "It is time to break the seemingly eternal logjam we have had in the public land debate. Wilderness purists would have us believe that until we accept huge and ever-increasing areas of wilderness, we will never adequately protect our lands. . . . How long must we remain hostage to such impossible tactics?"

The answer is: probably longer than this year. Environmental groups still wield plenty of power in Congress and can likely block any bill they choose. And they are fighting this one.

But over time, opposing this bill may cost such groups. Fair-minded office holders may ask why it is that the administration (which is environmentally minded) and Utah leaders can work out a compromise, but environmental groups keep insisting they must have all they want or else.

They may over time agree with what Cannon said last week about the new approach. He said it "represents a breakthrough in land management policy. It provides a balance between preservation and recreation. It proves that consensus can be achieved from the ground up, rather than Washington down."

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