The state of Utah has begun its own quiet "privatization" project, trying to sell off sections of state property that belong to all of us.

The policy is especially worrisome because the state government controls tracts of land everywhere in Utah, except on military bases.Not counting state parks or wildlife refuges, Utah owns 3.7 million surface acres, most of it in separate square-mile sections.

That makes thousands of parcels, many of them in areas of extreme environmental sensitivity. For responsible management of such lands, the greatest care must be exercised.

Unfortunately, we're burdened with a 19th Century statehood act, passed by Congress, that requires state land to be managed for the financial benefit of the public school system.

This is an inducement to sell any parcel that someone's willing to buy.

Within Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas, the state owns 300 sections, totaling about 185,000 acres. Another 545 sections, with almost 331,000 acres, are adjacent to WSAs, critically close to any wilderness.

Utah officials say they're willing to trade land with the BLM to prevent conflicts with wilderness. But this 1985 memorandum doesn't cover land rejected by the BLM in its preliminary recommendations and supported by environmentalists.

Case in point: The proposed sale to Vern L. Shumway of 200 acres of state land in "Behind the Rocks" wild country overlooking Kane Springs Canyon. Shumway is a Moab resident and the parcel is about five miles southwest of Moab, on the Grand-San Juan county line.

This would be the first sale of public land within tracts proposed by the Utah Wilderness Coalition for protection as wilderness.

The coalition includes most of the environmental groups in the state, as well as national groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.

The coalition is working toward a congressional designation of a 3,800-acre Hunters Canyon wilderness, which would include this land.

"This sale and Mr. Shumway's proposal to build a house on the rim of Kane Creek Canyon threatens the proposed wilderness area's scenic qualities, naturalness, solitude, and primitive recreation opportunities," wrote Rodney Greeno, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA is a member of the coalition.

"Buildings on the rim would be visible from much of the Hunters Canyon proposed wilderness and from the southern half of BLM's Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study area."

Back on March 4, Greeno wrote to Patrick D. Spurgin, director of the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry, protesting the proposed sale. But so far he has received no reply.

He visited the site the first weekend in April and reported that the tract is on the east rim of Kane Creek Canyon, "just as the canyon opens up from the narrow part into a large open valley near Hurrah Pass."

Anyone who has hiked around Hurrah Pass, as I have, knows what a spectacular region that is.

The plot crowns a 1,000-foot Wingate cliff. Greeno says the property "has spectacular views across to the Windows Section in Arches, the Book Cliffs to the north, the rims of Gold Par and Seven Mile canyons to the north, all of Behind the Rocks to the east, and the La Sal mountains behind them."

You'd be able to see the house lights at night from Dead horse Point State Park. "A house on the rim of that canyon would be visible, certainly, from the majority of the Behind the Rocks proposed wilderness and probably from our Gold Bar Canyon proposed wilderness," Greeno explained.

Behind the Rocks is a maze-like wonderland of tall sandstone fins rocks that look like shark fins fine sand, cactus, coyotes, and small hidden arches.

"There's no justification for some private landowner to get a house on a hill overlooking public lands," said Mike Medberry of the Wilderness Society. "It's just a spectacular place that should remain in public ownership."

He said the sale may be hung up because of a new state Supreme Court decision saying the State Land Board is only a policy-making board. If so, this gives the state a chance to clean up its act. It's not too late.

Our officials need to look at the long-range picture. One day, not far away in terms of the life of a country, we won't have much natural land left.

Then our great-grandchildren will judge us, whether we fought to protect their birthright to an unblemished landscape or we sold them out for a mess of pottage.