When you win re-election with 58 percent of the vote, you can call it a mandate. And apparently "mandate" to Rep. Wayne Owens means you can say one thing and do the opposite.
First, Owens announces he will not seek a congressional vote on any federal legislation to designate additional Utah wilderness until Utahns are more educated about the positive effects of wilderness."There is an immense educational project that has to happen," he said, a process he claims could take up to 10 years.
A day later, Owens failed to show up for the invitation-only Governor's Forum on Natural Resources - a forum during which Owens had been scheduled to debate the other two Utah congressmen on the very issue of wilderness.
In attendance were more than 200 county commissioners, industry land users, recreationists and state policy makers - the very people Owens wants to see "educated" to his point of view on wilderness.
Owens appears to reflect an elitist attitude toward the people of southern Utah - the very people affected most by any wilderness bills before Congress.
Politically speaking, Owens is telling the people of southern Utah there is no negotiation on the wilderness question. Rather, the issue will be resolved when the people in southern Utah come to see it the same way Owens does.
And politically speaking, Owens has nothing to lose by his actions.
First, until congressional action is taken on the Utah wilderness issue, the entire 3.2 million acres of "wilderness study area" designated by the Bureau of Land Management will continue to be managed as wilderness. By delaying any vote on wilderness, Owens gets 3.2 million acres of de facto wilderness.
Second, Owens doesn't have to run for re-election in southern Utah where the wilderness designations are a political hot potato. Owens is easily the most unpopular politician in southern or eastern Utah.
"We'd disown him if we could," laughed one Owens relative from Panguitch, only half joking. "Not too many of his family down here will admit they are related. At least not in public."
"Carbon County is the most Democratic county in the state. And I'm not sure he could get a majority here, either," added a prominent Democrat there.
But wilderness is a popular issue in Owens' Salt Lake County district. And a delayed vote in Congress accomplishes much the same end Owens wants but cannot hope to achieve with a divided Utah delegation.
And by saying it may take up to 10 years to educate Utahns on the wilderness issue, Owens is reflecting the urban "I know what's good for you" attitude that rural Utahns have come to resent.
Southern Utahns are understandably upset at Owens' comments. The question of wilderness - how much and where - needs to be resolved, and the sooner the better. Not in 10 years.
And the issue needs to be resolved with open debate among all parties affected by any such designation.
That attitude of cooperation was properly reflected at the Governor's Forum on Natural Resources where opinions were diverse and sometimes heated. But the forum accomplished that dialogue in a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation.
That forum - the first of its kind anywhere in the United States - brought together natural resource industry leaders, state and federal land managers, policy makers from all levels of government, and representatives from environmental groups, all with the idea of increasing dialogue on land management issues.
Even Gov. Norm Bangerter, who in the past has echoed the Legislature's posture of no new wilderness, used the forum to say that 1 million to 2 million acres of additional wilderness would not hurt the Utah economy.
While that remains a far cry from the 3.2 million acres in the BLM proposal or the 5 million acres in Owens' proposal, it does reflect a positive move toward negotiation.