The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance wants to get a debate started over the adequacy of some strong claims about supposedly severe economic im-pacts of a large wilderness designation in Utah.

About a year ago, a study by George F. Leaming of the Western Economic Analysis Center in Marana, Ariz., was released, saying that if it passed, the 5.1-million acre wilderness bill sponsored by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, would cause an economic loss to Utah of $230 billion over the following 25 years. Yes, that's billion, with a "b."The cost to Utah in terms of unrealized economic opportunity would be $13.2 billion yearly, according to the study. The report was based on the environmentalists' estimate that their bill would encompass 5.1 million acres; recently, they said the figure was closer to 5.7 million acres.

The Utah Association of Counties sponsored the study.

During a "National Wilderness Conference" in Salt Lake City in March 1990, Leaming said that uranium, petroleum, potash, copper and precious metals resources would be lost if a large wilderness bill were passed.

SUWA has challenged Leaming to a debate over the validity of the study. And the group collected reviews by academic experts.

C. Arden Pope III, associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University, wrote, "They (wilderness areas) are some of the most scenic, rugged and wild lands in the state. They are also lands that no one has figured out how to profitably develop. They are de facto wilderness partly because they are not good for much else."

Leaming had said the wilderness study areas are "being used for grazing right now. They're being used for hunting and fishing right now - both significant commercial activities. Also, virtually all of them have significant known mineral resources."

According to Pope, "The claim that protecting these 5.1 million acres of de facto wilderness will somehow cost the state the equivalent of the majority of its total annual earnings, or approximately 26 times the total annual earnings from all of ranching, farming, forestry, fisheries, and mining for the entire state, is so absurd as to be not only ridiculous but irresponsible."

"His statement is ridiculous and irresponsible," Leaming said. "He apparently does not understand the multiplier effect." Pope doesn't realize many losses are from potential revenues and not present activities, he said.

Thomas Michael Power, professor and chairman of the Economics Department, University of Montana, Missoula, wrote,"These errors compound each other . . . A multiplier is then used to incorporate the indirect impacts on the rest of the economy as these dollars are lost . . . Now if we multiply by 25 years, we get $171.5 billion.

"This, of course, is about eight times the total income earned by all individuals in Utah last year. An amazing feat of compounding errors!"

Leaming replied, "The loss of the $13.2 billion is an annual loss . . . If he (Power) thinks the only income that's earned in Utah is personal income, he's completely ignoring the business income and the state and local government income."

Actually, Power had other things to say, too, in his critique, but I picked out that particular idea to discuss.

Power challenged the assumption that a prosperous future could be extracted if only mineral production is left unconstrained in southern Utah. "Nothing could be farther from the truth," he wrote.

"Southern Utah has already ridden the roller coaster of mineral development and seen the depression that it leaves in its wake."

Leaming: "Nothing could be further from the truth than his statement. That's absolute nonsense."

Frank Hachman of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah also slashed the Leaming report. He wrote, "Dr. Leaming's study is not defendable against Dr. Pope's charges."

Leaming said Hachman is the only economist who criticized his report publicly whom he considers competent. Setting aside the slur on the competency of other economists, let's look at what Leaming is willing to do.

He said he would agree not to debate the report but to discuss it publicly, if SUWA pays Leaming's expenses in traveling to Utah for the meeting, only Hachman discusses the report with Leaming in the public forum, and the project is approved by the Utah Association of Counties.

Leaming, SUWA, Hachman and the association of counties could perform a great service for the citizens of Utah - indeed, for all Americans who are interested in the wilderness controversy.

The counties, which raised the subject, should have no trouble approving a discussion of the analysis they funded.

SUWA should accept Leaming's terms, find an appropriately large venue - for example, the auditorium at East High School - and begin selling tickets. Hachman and Leaming should discuss the report in detail.

Ken Rait, issues coordinator for SUWA, reacted positively to the idea and said he would contact Hachman about it. He did, and said Hachman is interested, too.

With any luck, the Great Wilderness Discussion should shed a brilliant light on a difficult and controversial subject.