The Bureau of Land Management released its final environmental impact statement on Utah wilderness recommendations Monday - and there were no surprises, since the recommendation was the same as findings the BLM released in February.
The BLM proposes designating about 1,975,000 acres as wilderness.The final document adds about 83,000 acres to its draft wilderness proposal, with some wilderness area boundaries adjusted, some added to the recommendation and one large area eliminated.
Utah environmentalists, knowing the content of the statement, huddled over the weekend to draft their responses. As soon as the document was released, the Utah Wilderness Coalition denounced the proposal. Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, charged it does not protect "the tremendous diversity of Utah's red rock canyons and Great Basin wild lands."
BLM state Director James Parker told the Deseret News Monday that now the document has been released, "we would like to see some kind of consensus process developing in Utah."
The agency would not like to have the issue undecided for another 10 years or more, he said. "I think it's (the debate over wilderness) a divisive process, it sets people against each other."
Some kind of consensus should be worked out between the state and Congress. "That won't be easy, but I think it's time," he said.
The agency analyzed the opinions of about 6,200 people, both in written comments and oral statements made during the study process.
In the opinion of Greg Thayn, the BLM's wilderness chief for Utah, wilderness designation on BLM land would not shut down communities, as has often been claimed. Existing valid rights such as mining are protected, although the process is more difficult for those wishing to use the areas.
Thayn said the problem is not in present effects on communities. "The major effect is on potential, sometime in the future." In other words, future development proposals may be denied. Parker said water rights were extensively analyzed. The BLM took the position that wilderness designation would not create reserved federal water rights.
But he said in an Arizona statewide BLM wilderness bill that Congress said there are reserve water rights; however, they are subordinate to the state's water-allocation laws. Parker said the BLM has always abided by state water laws.
That means that if any water rights were created by this kind of wilderness bill, they would be subordinate to existing water rights.
The BLM began surveying all of its 22 million acres in Utah back in 1978. It then designated 3.2 million acres as 83 separate wilderness study areas where intensive studies were carried out.
In 1986, the BLM released its preliminary recommendations and draft environmental impact statement that would set aside about 1.9 million acres. Now that the final recommendation has been made, the debate over wilderness will shift to Congress, which has the final say.
Until Congress acts, however, all 3.2 million acres in original study areas must be protected as de facto wilderness.
Under the proposal described in the EIS, 66 wilderness units, ranging from the Deep Creek Mountains in the West Desert, Desolation Canyon along the Green River and slickrock canyons in the Escalante River, drainage would be established.
The one large area dropped from the preliminary recommendation is the Wahweap Wilderness Study Area in Kane County. Parker said it was cut because of overall low wilderness quality, potential conflicts with coal development and the fact that it has scattered state land sections and roads that are "cherry-stemmed" into the area.
Negro Bill Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Areas east of Moab, Mount Pennell in the Henry Mountains and four others were added to the preferred wilderness alternative.
"Now that the facts are on the table and the public has been heard, we stand ready to assist the governor, the congressional delegation and others working to resolve this issue," Parker said.
He added that he hopes the 10-volume environmental document will not only be an information resource but will be a "catalyst for a timely decision."
The U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines are reporting on mineral potential of each recommended area. The entire set of reports, including the environmental statement, will go to the secretary of the interior.
By next fall, the Interior Department is to give the information to the president, who has an October 1993 deadline for submitting his recommendation to Congress. Congress can act at any time before or after that date.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said recently he would like to wait five or 10 years before asking Congress to act on his proposal to designate 5.1 million acres as wilderness.
"The BLM has ignored not only specific comments from the member organizations of the Utah Wilderness Coalition, but also the letters of thousands of individuals who wrote on specific problems in the draft," said Terri Martin, regional representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
Jane Leeson of The Wilderness Society said the recommendation is based on "fundamentally flawed decisions made over 10 years ago" that cut many tracts from consideration, during the BLM's wilderness inventory.