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Love her or hate her, activist makes impact

SUWA attorney is a fierce defender of wilderness

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The name Heidi may conjure up images of a carefree pixie skipping through the Swiss Alps. But in southern Utah, it is one word guaranteed to get county commissioners red around the collar.

Heidi. As in environmental activist Heidi McIntosh.

"She is not very popular down here, to say the least," Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston said. "She is the kind of person who refuses to negotiate and, because of her position of power, she demands things be done her way."

McIntosh, 39, is more than an ardent conservationist with a preservationist agenda. She is a lawyer who has over much of the past decade made life miserable for rural county commissioners and federal land managers.

This week, McIntosh, whose official title is issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is in U.S. District Court for Utah fighting to have selected areas of southern Utah closed to off-road vehicles. SUWA, Utah's largest environmental group, is arguing that damage caused by ORVs could make those areas ineligible for wilderness designations.

It is one of a litany of SUWA issues in the federal courts ranging from ownership of dirt roads to the way the Bureau of Land Management does — or does not — manage public lands. SUWA's position, embodied in McIntosh, is ruthlessly uncompromising.

"I am stubborn about the things that are important to me," McIntosh said, "as everybody should be."

McIntosh gets stubborn when it comes to protecting Utah's wilderness areas, what she calls the last great wild places.

"People say I am unwilling to compromise, but what they fail to see is we (in SUWA) are asking for only 16 percent of Utah, for the most unique lands in the world, to be protected for future generations. That is the very definition of compromise," she says.

Brad Barber, the now-retired deputy director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget, has found himself repeatedly at odds with McIntosh. He called SUWA's intransigence frustrating, aggravating and often contrary to good public policy born out of compromise.

But he harbors nothing but respect for her.

"Although we have not always seen eye to eye, I respect her professionalism," Barber said. And it is that professionalism that "moved Utah's environmental movement into the public mainstream. I credit Heidi with making wilderness a mainstream issue, for creating the perception that (environmentalists) were not fringe radicals."

McIntosh looks and talks mainstream. She goes into court wearing business suits, and she charms judges and opposing counsel with equal enthusiasm.

"The fact she is a bright, articulate and strategic woman in a place like Utah makes her a potent concoction," said Ken Rait, a former SUWA colleague now fighting environmental battles in Oregon. "She is not only a fierce and passionate defender of wilderness, but she brings an outstanding legal talent to the fight to protect wild lands."

Such praise for McIntosh is hard to come by in rural Utah where she is seen as a destroying angel bent on eradicating traditional rural economies built on ranching, mining and logging. She is labeled a "hired gun" attorney and "trust-fund baby" more interested in protecting Eastern elitists who want to lock up public lands.

Commissioner Bill Redd of San Juan County sees her as a pawn of special interests who want to concentrate all government power in Washington. "She advocates a socialist model of government ownership of the soil, central planning and coercive control," he said.

Kane County Commissioner Norm Carroll says McIntosh's impact on rural economies has been "devastating," and he chides her for refusing to consider the impacts of her environmentalism on local people who have historically relied on the land to make their livings.

"There's not a positive thing I can say about her or SUWA," he said.

McIntosh insists she has tremendous empathy for the struggles of rural Utahns, and she is nothing like the uncaring environmental snob she is portrayed to be in rural Utah.

She comes from a ranching background herself, and her brother is an avid off-road enthusiast, "a true motorhead," she said.

Although born in New York, she was reared from an infant in Tucson, Ariz. Her father, a high school English teacher, was always short on cash and long on time. So they spent countless weeks camping and hiking throughout the West, something that instilled in her a profound respect for nature and a desire to protect it.

After graduating from Georgetown Law School in 1986, that ideal took a back seat to paying off student loans. She worked five years in Southern California, earning hefty fees representing clients like oil giants Chevron and UniCal. Tackling antitrust issues, she learned first-hand how corporate America thinks.

"I was never pushing oil rigs on public lands, but I was definitely on the other side of the coin," she said. "I learned to practice law working for extractive industries."

In 1991, she quit her job and enrolled in an environmental law master's program at the University of Utah. She began volunteering her skills to SUWA. She eventually went to work full time for SUWA where she now earns about $40,000 a year — a small fraction of the six-figure salary she made as a corporate lawyer and far, far less than what critics think she is being paid.

"It was never about the money," she said. "It was about lifestyle and the things that were important in my life. And as I watched extractive industries destroy (Utah wilderness) bit by bit, piece by piece, there was no question in my mind what I wanted to do was use my passion and skills to effect positive change."

That dream was almost cut short seven years ago when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening blood-clot disease.

Now recovered, she feels a renewed sense of commitment to protecting wilderness, more so now than ever before. It is an enthusiasm that is contagious among other wilderness advocates.

"The BLM has failed to follow the law so frequently that we have to be able to go to court with a skilled advocate," said wilderness advocate Scott Groene. "What makes Heidi special is she is a great person with political and personal skills that go beyond the courtroom. And that adds up to being a great advocate for wilderness."

It is a role for which even critics begrudgingly admit she is better suited than anyone before.

"She fills a niche, and she is very, very good at it," Barber said. "If it wasn't her or SUWA, it would be somebody else."

E-mail: spang@desnews.com