An angry Gov. Norm Bangerter said Friday it is inappropriate for Rep. Wayne Owens to prepare a plan designating 5 million more acres of Utah land as federal wilderness areas without first presenting it to the governor.
But Owens, D-Utah, said the land contains the type of wilderness that should be preserved for the enjoyment of the public.And Owens, who said he briefed Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, about the plan, said he has neglected to contact Bangerter because he believes the governor may not win re-election in November. He also said a bill designating the land will not be filed until January.
"He (Bangerter) shouldn't get too excited because it's six months away," Owens said. "I hope to have a bill which we'll put in the hopper and then everybody will have a chance to participate and give their ideas, including former governors."
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Bangerter, a Republican, attacked Owens' proposal, saying only 22 percent of the state's land is currently in private ownership. An additional 22 percent is federal land that is restricted as either national parks, recreation or wilderness areas.
"If we in Utah are not careful, Utah will become land reserved for the few at the expense of the many," Bangerter said, calling Owens' plan inconsistent with the state's philosophy.
Bangerter, who trails Democratic challenger Ted Wilson in opinion polls, said he would support a plan designating an additional 1 million acres as wilderness. But the state should be careful about tying up land that could be used later, he added.
"I think it (Owens' plan) is entirely a giveaway to those who want to lock all our land up," he said. "It's inappropriate not to consult the governor or the Legislature."
Owens said the government should decide now, while there is little pressure to develop the land, which areas should be preserved forever. The federal government owns more than 34 million acres in Utah.
"What I'm saying is that 5 million of it ought to go into permanent wilderness status. Then you see what better and higher uses there are for the other (land)," he said. The 5 million acres is scattered throughout the state.
"I just want to make sure that we take the best - that which provides the basic fundamental beauty and water protection and game habitat - and ensure that it's always protected in that status. Nobody's talking about taking any land out of production."
"People want wilderness," Owens said, citing statewide polls. Utah's basic beauty is "a premise for our growing tourism. So for economic purposes as well as environmental good sense, we need to focus on wilderness issues," Owens said.
Owens acknowledged Garn and Hatch both said they would oppose the plan. Reps. Howard Nielson and Jim Hansen, both R-Utah, are also likely to oppose it.
Bangerter said he hoped Utah's local and federal leaders could reach a bipartisan compromise on how much land to designate as wilderness.
"Once land is locked up it is virtually impossible to unlock it," he said. "We must think of all Utah citizens, not just a few, as we consider future wilderness areas."
Owens said he would be happy to work with Bangerter in January if he still is governor, "which I don't think he will be."
Environmentalists were happy to support Owens.
Lawson LeGate of the Sierra Club's Public Lands Office in Salt Lake City said, "I think it's high time that the governor and some members of our congressional delegation look around and start really talking to the people of Utah about wilderness.
Dick Carter, director of the Utah Wilderness Association, said at one time his group supported a smaller wilderness bill than the 5 million acres advocated by the Sierra Club and most other environmental groups.
That was "to convince the opponents of wilderness there was a willingness on the part of some environmentalists to move forward without resorting to extremes," he said.
But Bangerter, agriculture interests and county commissioners constantly countered with a flat no-more-wilderness position, he said.
"Therefore it has finally dawned on us that efforts and signals at conciliation and sort of a measured approach just aren't working."