Lately there's been a lot of talk about some imagined need to build consensus over the Utah Bureau of Land Management wilderness issue. Consensus has its place if you're in a New England town meeting discussing the merits of a dog licensing fee, but if you're fighting about principle it's overrated.

Worse, working too hard to build a consensus could erode the moral landscape.We should not forget that the wilderness debate embraces important issues for both sides. They've been discussed so thoroughly that there is no need to rehash them today. What I want to talk about is this call to unite on a wilderness proposal.

It's much healthier for all concerned to frankly state their positions, however divergent.

Unity of political thought is a virtue in the gulag, as a mental gag. Intellectual diversity is a cherished right for the rest of us. It is the shining tool of democracy.

As proven by the Utah Forest Service Wilderness Act of 1984, some products of conciliation are grotesque. At the last minute, perfectly appropriate wild lands in the Death Hollow region were hacked from the bill to allow development of a supposed immense carbon dioxide deposit. The deposit turned out to be a pipe dream, but the Death Hollow Wilderness was fatally compromised all the same.

I am old enough to recall the national debate over segregation. The ignorant, disgraceful, ringing declaration of "Segregation forever!" remains stamped in the memory of my generation. That was around the time I went to work for Head Start, teaching black children in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Snow Hill, Md.

How often I have thought back to those days, in the summer of 1967, and wondered what happened to Abra and the rest of my beautiful kids. The ideals of equality and wilderness, as different as they are, are similar in that they're not abstractions. They are the light in the eyes of real children, and the feel of real sandstone slickrock gritting underfoot.

The battle over wilderness is shaping up as the same kind of commitment to principle as was the civil rights debate. That was a fight for decency; this is a fight for nature.

As with the racial bigots of the 1960s and their progenitors, the slaveholders of the 1860s, what respectable compromise is possible? Shall we say black people can vote, but only in the North? Or that slavery is abolished except in certain states? Or that BLM wilderness should protect only 1.4 million acres?

We should state our beliefs, hold to them, and let Congress hammer out a solution. As citizens, it's not our duty to be conciliators; it is our duty to speak our minds freely.

And our minds are wonderfully diverse, in a society that knows the value of dissent. We are a pluralistic country, after all, not some monolithic dictatorship. It's all right if only 51 percent of the electorate agrees on a president; his legitimacy is unchallenged.

And so let it be with federal wilderness areas. If we're to speak at all, let's really debate. The truth emerges through rough and tumble disputes, through the process of arguing - but it probably cannot escape a smothering adherence to the ideal of consensus.

Without the donnybrook over the Clean Air Act amendments - a fight that Congress carried on relentlessly for several years - we wouldn't have the strong legislation that recently emerged.

In the wilderness debate, Congress should recall that both the Deseret News and Brigham Young University surveyed this state and found strong support for wilderness, particularly along the urbanized Wasatch Front.

As BYU Professor C. Arden Pope III wrote, "the results of this study demonstrate that the value of additional wilderness designation remains significantly high up until approximately 8-10 million acres, or approximately 15 percent of the state."

Federal wilderness is a national treasure and its protection should be in the hands of our national representatives. They hear the voices of America. Throughout the country, millions want to protect the Utah wild country. It is their land too.

But the constituency for preservation is numerous and powerful on the statewide level as well.

With their numbers, wilderness advocates need not compromise.