Let Utahns decide wilderness

Published: Tuesday, March 13 2007 12:18 a.m. MDT

If the Democrats control Congress, it must be time for Maurice Hinchey to try to manage land in Utah again.

Hinchey is a Democratic congressman from New York. In the years before the Republican takeover of Congress in the mid-'90s, he sponsored bills that would have designated up to 5.7 million acres of Utah — roughly one-tenth of the entire state — as protected wilderness. Utah's politicians, led by Mike Leavitt, who was governor at the time, struggled to find a compromise at roughly 1.8 million acres, which surfaced briefly as a bill but was strongly opposed by the Clinton administration.

Now Hinchey is flexing his muscles again. He is dismayed by the oil and gas leases the Bureau of Land Management's Utah office has granted or is considering to grant on land near national parks and monuments. He also still is a sponsor of a Utah wilderness bill which, with inflation, has now grown to 9.5 million acres.

We presume there aren't many important environmental issues along the Hudson River, in the Catskills or on Finger Lakes, which all lie in Hinchey's home district. Otherwise, why would he be so concerned with managing land in far-away Utah, where no one ever has cast a vote for him?

The truth is there are serious issues in Utah concerning oil and gas exploration. The extraction of energy resources also is an important national concern, given the way dictators and political strongmen are working to harm the United States through the manipulation of prices and supplies.

The truth also is that the Bureau of Land Management is not an irresponsible organization that grants leases willy-nilly, with no thought to environmental concerns. Each proposal is open to public comment, then studied for environmental impacts. If allowed, a project generally comes with several stipulations. That is especially true if a sensitive species might be disturbed.

Even then, there are avenues of recourse. Last year, environmentalists halted leases through appeals processes within the Interior Department and in federal court.

We wish the will existed on both sides of the issue to reach a fair compromise that would designate some of Utah's most sensitive and beautiful land as protected wilderness. But the issues at hand, including the nation's need for oil and gas and the fact that nearly 70 percent of Utah is federally owned, are complicated.

Whatever finally comes of this issue needs to be generated from Utah, not from New York.

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