Many of the same wilderness advocates of the Utah Bureau of Land Management wars are gearing up for another fight — saving the forests in Utah.
It could become even nastier, however, since the battlefield is on another environmental group's turf — Utah Environmental Congress.
Utah Forest Network, a coalition of local and national environmental groups, began a year ago working quietly on reviewing the forest plans, now up for revisions, on three southern Utah national forests. In doing so, it launched a statewide survey of "roadless" or undeveloped areas in Utah's forests to come up with a statewide wilderness proposal.
The coalition includes the local groups: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Save Our Canyons, Red Rock Forests and the Ogden chapter of the Sierra Club. It also draws from well-heeled national environmentalists, The Wilderness Society and American Lands. The venture is similar to that of the Utah Wilderness Coalition's campaign for BLM wilderness of 9.1 million acres in Utah's red rock desert country.
Absent from the effort is UEC, which earlier this year unveiled one of the most ambitious and comprehensive initiatives to protect 64 percent of roadless areas in Utah's six national forests.
It wasn't by design to exclude UEC, said Tim Peterson, the roadless/wilderness specialist for the relatively new group Utah Forest Network. UFN just wanted to draw on more political power by bringing in lifelong veterans of the wilderness wars, he added.
"(UEC) is a go-it-alone group," Peterson said. "We wanted not to compete with Utah Environmental Congress but attempt to offer a chorus of voices."
UEC is a little miffed by the exclusion.
"The UEC is not a go-it-alone group," said executive director Stephanie Tidwell. The organization was founded about six years ago by Denise Boggs, a well known conservationist who is now with the national law firm, WildLaw. She remains on the UEC board of directors.
"We are a coalition with individual, organization and business members representing about 30,000 people," added Tidwell. "The Utah Forest Network knows this because some of them are members of the UEC."
Peterson said the wilderness study is a work in progress, with funding coming from SUWA and Campaign for America's Wilderness. The recent focus has been on reviewing the forest plans, which has slowed down the process for a statewide wilderness plan.
"We are very close to a wilderness proposal on the Dixie and Fishlake," Peterson said. "Our intention was to have a statewide proposal . . . It turns out it will take much longer for that."
But much of that work has already been done by UEC, a painstaking effort that took four years. And it involved the collaboration from other groups like SUWA and Red Rock Forests.
"We did not develop our proposal in a vacuum, and to claim otherwise is simply dishonest," said Kevin Mueller, UEC's roadless area coordinator.
Peterson knows that. After all, he helped UEC with its inventory as a field worker. In doing so, he admits UEC's wilderness proposal is one of the most comprehensive in the country. "I don't think there has been anything like that anywhere except in New Mexico," he said.
So why do another survey?
"(UEC's) wilderness proposal is fairly conservative," Peterson said.
UEC says it's no more conservative than the Utah Wilderness bill that would designate roughly 40 percent of the land managed by the BLM in Utah as wilderness. UEC's proposal calls for the same percentage — 40 percent of the Forest Service land in Utah.
UFN, however, is recommending much more wilderness in the Dixie and Fishlake forests.
But UEC says that won't fly because it doesn't follow the law.
"Our approach differs in that we have always acknowledged that not all lands that technically qualify as 'roadless' are manageable or available for designation under the Wilderness Act," Mueller said. "We honestly took into consideration valid existing rights and management conflicts when balancing the need to protect roadless areas and native forests with wilderness designation."
In developing the wilderness proposal, UEC followed National Forest Service standards. It included a survey of 5.2 million acres of roadless lands in Utah — almost two-thirds of the national forest land in the state. UEC then reviewed timber sales and water rights and took extensive photographs to support its proposal to preserve 3.3 million acres of wilderness lands.
UEC, however, recognized that not all Forest Service roadless areas qualify as wilderness-quality lands because of popular uses such as snowmobiling and off-road vehicles.
"We firmly believe UEC's approach to wilderness on Forest Service lands in Utah is sound and we encourage these groups to join our coalition and support a finely crafted bill that can actually pass Congress," added Tidwell.
Peterson said UFN will draft a plan that recognizes valid existing land-use rights under federal law. But it won't include numbers of how many acres of wilderness should be set aside. "We are trying to keep the debate away from numbers," he said. "Valid existing rights have to be considered under wilderness laws. We are not attempting to rewrite the Wilderness Act."