With the release this week of the Bureau of Land Management's final draft of a 10-year study of possible wilderness, the issue finally moves to Washington, D.C., where Congress and the White House take up the battle. But the question needs to be resolved without dragging on for another decade.
Unfortunately, as the debate shifts away from Utah at least to some extent, it also moves further away from any influence by politically outnumbered Utahns over what happens to the land inside their state boundaries.In the minds of some, that has already occurred in a local sense. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, a leading advocate of more Utah wilderness, comes from a district that does not have any proposed wilderness in its borders. Those who live in closest proximity to potential wilderness lands and may be most immediately affected by the issue have no vote in Owens' efforts.
With the politically sensitive role that environmental issues play in Congress, the debate may offer members of Congress the chance to demonstrate their environmental credentials by opting for more wilderness than the BLM study has identified.
That will be easy to do since they don't live in Utah and don't have to cope with Utah voters who disagree with their actions.
The BLM study recommended 1,975,000 acres of Utah as qualifying for wilderness designation. That figure is no surprise; it has been known as the approximate outcome for years. What it does is strike a middle ground between those who insist on "no more wilderness" and those who argue for more than 5 million acres of additional wilderness.
Most advocates of "no more wilderness" have been farmers, ranchers, the mining industry, the business community and others that use public lands. They urge multiple use and claim that wilderness, with its strict ban on any development, will hurt the economy in places that already struggle with economic hard times.
But most of the anti-wilderness people are politically realistic enough to know that some wilderness designation eventually will come out of Congress. What they want is to use the BLM's 1.9 million acres as a starting point to negotiate downward. Generally, like the Utah Farm Bureau, they believe the BLM review process has been thorough and fair.
A legislative State Wilderness Task Force has voted in favor of 1.4 million acres of wilderness, a figure backed by Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, who plans to file a wilderness bill in Congress with that figure. However, in a Democratic-controlled House, he faces an uphill struggle.
Advocates of more wilderness want to use the BLM figure as a starting place to negotiate upwards. They say the BLM study was flawed and should have included more wilderness-worthy acreage. Like Owens, they argue that as much as 5.1 million acres of wilderness should be adopted, a figure that recently was raised to 5.7 million.
Owens says he is willing to drop proposed individual wilderness sites if it can be shown that there are competing, viable other uses of the land. But still another study process would tie up as much as 5.7 million acres as de facto wilderness - a situation that may prompt environmentalists to use the tactics of delay as long as they possibly can.
There's room for reasonable people to disagree over how much wilderness Utah ought to have. But in fairness to people whose livelihoods may be affected, those disagreements ought to be resolved quickly and not be held hostage to endless studies and years-long ideological arguments in Washington.