Robert Bennett: Utah wilderness plan a model for U.S.

Published: Monday, June 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Of all the political issues that impact Utah as a State, few have been as controversial or long lasting as the fight over wilderness. "Wilderness," under the law, is not a description of uninhabited space; it is what lawyers call "a term of art." Congress has defined it and reserved the final determination of whether or not a parcel of land meets the specifics of that definition to itself. That means that no new "wilderness" can be created, under the law, except by act of Congress.

I was not aware of the depth of feeling on the issue until I ran for the Senate in 1992. My Democratic opponent, Wayne Owens, favored designating a large portion of the state as wilderness, and the vast majority of rural Utahns, whose lives would have been impacted by his proposals, were almost violently opposed. I quickly learned that if I wanted to be taken seriously in the counties south of Provo, I had to make myself knowledgeable on the subject.

My stance on the wilderness issue was a big reason I won that election, but the issue didn't go away. If anything, it became even more contentious. Many efforts were made to resolve it, but none bore fruit.

Then Gov. Olene Walker tried again. For a time, it looked as if nothing would come of her efforts, either, but some of the players she brought into the drama thought they saw some movement. Some county commissioners had long-term plans to make and long-term problems to solve; they wanted some certainty about their county's future. Some advocates of wilderness had fears that many of the lands for which they sought designation were in danger of encroachment; they wanted some results. Taking our cue from Walker's work, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and I decided to try again.

We found a vital ally in the National Wilderness Society. They sent staff members to Utah who walked the ground with members of my staff. They met with Washington County commissioners and were respectful of their concerns. Once the final bill was written, their president testified in its favor, sitting next to the county commissioners. I knew we had a chance for a breakthrough when one of the leading backers of Utah wilderness said to me, "I'm happy to work with you. I've been giving money to this environmental group for decades, but they haven't been able to create a single acre of wilderness."

It took more than four years for the Washington County Land Use Bill to be passed and signed into law. There were some who fought it right up to the last moment, but some of its fiercest environmental opponents now insist that they were for it all along.

I am writing about it now because Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced that he has dropped his "Wild Lands" initiative, which some denounced as a way to try to circumvent congressional authority, and has endorsed a state-by-state approach similar to the one underway in Utah.

A number of Utah county commissioners have been working on wilderness plans for over a year. The Wilderness Society has staff members working with them to draw agreements that can be the basis of future legislation. When they have a final draft, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is in a key position on the relevant House committee to review their efforts.

We may yet see resolution of an issue that has torn the state apart for decades.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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