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San Juan County wilderness protection is vital to all Utahns

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Sen. Bob Bennett rightly takes pride in last year's Washington County lands bill, which brought competing interests to the table and earned their support to protect permanently 256,000 acres of wilderness. Now, as the end of his term approaches, Bennett is working in San Juan County to craft similar comprehensive legislation.

This moment can lead to real protection for America's red rock wilderness. Good legislation can reverse the decisions of the Bush administration that allow degradation of this irreplaceable landscape with increased off-road vehicle routes and rash and unnecessary natural resource development. But we worry that artificial haste and insufficient public input may lead to an inadequate bill.

Over the past three years, we were just two of more than 230 people who took part in two-hour "Faith and the Land" dialogues, sharing personal stories about the spiritual importance of wilderness in our lives and discussing how our faith traditions call on us to care for Utah's wild lands. Utahns from Episcopalian, Islamic, Jewish, Latter-day Saint, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and United Church of Christ backgrounds met in their respective faith communities. These dialogues exposed a vital but often neglected common ground in Utah's rich and diverse faith traditions: We Utahns love our wild deserts and canyons and mountains and rivers, and we want to protect them for generations to come.

San Juan County exemplifies these extraordinary landscapes with true wilderness character, including the rich archaeological resources of the canyons of Cedar Mesa and the ramparts and basins within Greater Canyonlands that remain unprotected by Canyonlands National Park. The stunning mesas and domes of the Glen Canyon proposed wilderness — one of the biggest and most spectacular tracts of wild land remaining in the nation — deserve special attention.

This wild Glen Canyon region includes Mancos Mesa, dissected by the 600-foot sheer Wingate Sandstone walls of Moqui Canyon. Unfortunately, the Bush administration plans designated the Moqui Canyon creek bed with its permanent stream as an official ORV route. The White Canyon wilderness, north of Natural Bridges National Monument, includes thousand-foot red rock cliffs and more than 100 miles of canyons festooned with alcoves, hanging gardens, arches and grottoes. Here, too, the Bush administration plans designate several unnecessary ORV routes, cutting this remarkable wilderness into pieces.

These are public lands, belonging to all Americans. As much as the good citizens of Monticello, Blanding, Bluff and the Navajo and White Mesa Ute reservations care for this land, San Juan County numbers only 14,000 people. The state of Utah, in contrast, is rapidly approaching 3 million, more than 80 percent of whom live along the Wasatch Front and rely on such wilderness areas to take their families backpacking. These citizens certainly constitute a vital part of the public who deserve a place at the table.

We call for Bennett to hold hearings in the Salt Lake area about the San Juan County bill — and any other county lands bills under discussion. Our elected officials will subvert the democratic process if they ignore the commitment of citizens along the Wasatch Front, inspired by faith, to permanent and sustainable protection of these wilderness areas.

Wilderness stewardship is intimately intertwined with living ethically, living mindfully and living with restraint. As the "Faith and the Land" dialogues made clear, what makes good ecological sense makes for good theology too. This idea can unite rather than divide us.

The wild lands of San Juan County are too precious to allow a small number of people to settle their future. Give all the people of Utah a chance to be heard.

Professor and writer George Handley is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo. Writer and photographer Stephen Trimble is a member of Salt Lake City's Reconstructionist Jewish congregation Chavurah B'Yachad.