"Wilderness" is a joke. Worse, it is a cruel joke to Utah's education funding and to Utah's rural economies. "Wilderness" is defined by Congress to mean 5,000 acres of roadless land and … well, the rest doesn't matter. Although wilderness designation originally was intended for unique, pristine areas offering outstanding opportunities for solitude, it now merely means any 5,000-acre chunk of public land where roads can be ignored or red-lined. The quality of the land or the experience is irrelevant. It is strictly a numbers thing.
The continuous theme of Western public lands is excess. The only thing that changes is the trophy-of-the-day (e.g., land, bison, grazing, timber, and, now, wilderness for the Green Barons). In the West, enough is never enough.
Special interest groups first wanted 3 million acres of wilderness in Utah. Then, 5 million. Now, 9 million acres — which means every other acre in Utah that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In a serious case of grade inflation, every other acre is now the best. Although Congress never changed the standards, protection of unique, pristine areas has morphed into capture of average areas. Why? The argument is that the land is imperiled by use. Imperiled when, without wilderness protection, the amount of wilderness is metastasizing? Hardly.
"Wilderness" is about politics. Sparsely populated areas in the West are Republican. Democratic administrations have nothing to lose in those areas by savaging the local economy. But, they do stand to gain urban votes by protecting the West from yahoos who, well, yahoos who have apparently grown wilderness 300 percent over the past 30 years.
In 1976, Congress declared that BLM lands were to have multiple uses. Unlike national parks, people could conduct economic beneficial activities and drive to recreational areas on BLM lands. Congress told the BLM to take four years to analyze wilderness characteristics. The BLM concluded that analysis in 1980. But, again, in the West, enough is never enough.
Robert Abbey, who led a results-oriented 1996 wilderness reinventory for the Clinton administration, now leads the Obama reinventory. Make no mistake. The point isn't to analyze — that already has been done. The point is to bag trophies.
Wilderness designation means that economic activities on those lands will stop. Resource-related jobs and tax revenues will end. Although environmentally sound energy and mineral production are helping to fund education in other states, Utah, once again, will be denied those revenues. Utahns no longer will be able to drive to and use favorite areas. Why? Because a Democratic administration wants to display a trophy for blue-state votes.
Discussion and compromise provide the rational path forward. Wilderness protection and economic activity both can be accommodated — as Congress has done in Clark County, Nev., and Washington County, Utah. But discussion and compromise take time, and healthy democratic process isn't nearly as sexy as a swashbuckling coup that instantly gives a victory to one side of a multi-party issue. The West, after all, has never been about discussion and compromise.
Because "wilderness" is about politics, I'll end by talking raw politics. The Obama wilderness reinventory will be unfair. It will newly find wilderness characteristics in 9 million acres. And, environmental special interest groups will love it. In blue states, the move will boost President Obama's sagging poll numbers. But, remember, political balance sheets have debits and credits. Utahns know who their friends and their enemies are. Because of Democrats' eagerness to savage our economy in exchange for blue-state votes, I predict that, for the next 40 years, Democrats will wander Utah's political wilderness.
Utah Sen. Steve Urquhart represents District 29 (western Washington County) in the Utah Senate.