Arches National Park, Utah: Photography by Ray Rasmussen

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Utah: The West's new battleground
David Iler, Cyberwest Magazine,
March 11, 1996

It was a cold winter night in late January but it was cozy inside the University of Denver's general classroom auditorium, the setting for a good old-fashioned environmental production, "Utah Slickrock Wilderness: Incredibly Beautiful, Immediately Threatened."

After several years of hibernation, environmentalists finally have a national issue they can sink their teeth into -- Utah wilderness. And they haven't forgotten how to pull the emotional strings of both hibernating and up-and-coming enviros.

The DU show had all the elements of a barn-burning Green rally: Two beautiful slide presentations showing the haunting beauty of Utah's wild lands; spacey New Age, pseudo-Native American music setting the right mood; raffles with backpacks, sleeping bags and outdoor gear as prizes; a mostly white, reverent, Gore-Tex-robed audience; and emotional speakers, including Susan Tixier, field director for Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, who couldn't hold back the tears as she read her thoughts about the meaning of "wilderness." Just hearing about sitting "butt-ass naked in the dirt" in the wilderness was enough to get those Green juices flowing again. Sprinkle in a little Mannheim Steamroller, and one might think James Watt was back as Secretary of the Interior.

The presentation was part of a much broader and very successful effort spearheaded by the Southern Utah Wilderness Association to publicize divergent congressional efforts to convert Bureau of Land Management land in Utah to wilderness. U.S. Senate bill 884, introduced by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, designates 1.8 of 22 million acres of BLM land as wilderness. SUWA favors setting aside 5.7 million acres as proposed in House bill 1500, introduced by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, has also introduced a bill, HR 1745, which mirrors Hatch's bill. Although Hansen's bill was removed from consideration late last year, it may be resurrected.

Legislation, it is rumored, is now being developed by the GOP that would package HR 1745 or S. 884 with an "omnibus" bill, including federal funding to buy the Sterling Forest on the New York/New Jersey border. Preserving the Sterling Forest is such a priority for N.J. and N.Y. lawmakers that they may support the larger bill, despite their past support of HR 1500. Hansen, who chairs the House National Parks, Forests and Lands Subcommittee, has stalled Sterling Forest bills in the past, and is holding the forest "hostage" according to SUWA. Enviros see moderate Republican votes as essential to passing preferred Utah wilderness legislation, but fear the Sterling Forest issue may sway them to the Hansen/Hatch version.

This political endgame culminates 17 years of discussions about what to do with Utah's BLM lands. Since then, the solitary canyons, arches and mountains of Utah have become enormously popular for hikers, mountain bikers and backpackers, and now industry has cast its eye on the rich resources of these lands. According to a statement by Hatch, given on the Senate floor last June when he introduced 884, the BLM lands contain "... deposits of oil and gas, coal, uranium, all kinds of precious metals, and other natural elements ..."

The Utah lands issue has galvanized enviros like no other issue since the spotted owl controversy in the late 1980s. "The environmental community," said DU event organizer Fred Elbel, "kind of took a deep breath and relaxed." The dramatic change to the right in Congress in November, 1994 "blindsided the environmental community," said Elbel. However SUWA and former BLM Director Jim Baca of New Mexico have been wildly successful in publicizing the Utah wilderness issue. Several major daily newspapers have editorialized in favor of SUWA's position. "The reason is," said Elbel, "is it's a big land grab."

Much of the support for reduced wilderness acreage has come from Utah county commissioners. A common argument from Utah is that the fate of BLM lands should be decided locally. However Baca told Cyberwest Magazine, "Every single American's name is on the deed to that land. (This fact) goes over the head of Western politicians. ... it's not their land." Enviros also point out that urban Utahans overwhelmingly support the 5.7 million proposal.

Importantly, the Hatch/Hansen legislation contains so-called "hard-release" language which forbids any further consideration of BLM lands for wilderness. This, SUWA contends, sets a dangerous precedent. "It opens to development everything but what is considered in the bill (for wilderness), said Baca.

SUWA's challenge will be to retain the moderate Republican support it has won. Baca believes the Utah delegation introduced its wilderness measures because of the 1994 election results, which brought a wave of Republican lawmakers to Washington. However, efforts to pass the Hatch/Hansen bills have failed, due in large part to hesitant support from moderate Republicans. New efforts to attach the Utah delegation's bills to larger measures is the latest strategy to test SUWA's political acumen.

Environmentalism has come a long way since the mid-1970s, when it was fun to fly the Green flag and be associated with anarchists and tree-huggers. Today, of course, everyone from George Bush to DuPont claims to be an environmentalist. While SUWA and others addressing the Utah wilderness issue are proving the political might of environmental activism, the effort hopefully will rekindle enthusiasm on the many Green issues which deserve action, such as alternative fuels and power, population control, mass transit, etc. A napping environmental community could let unseen dragons feast in a hostile congressional climate.

In the meantime, we'll be gallivanting through the wilderness looking for a nice mud puddle to sit in -- naked, of course.

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