On 16 key conservation votes in the last Congress, Utah's members of the House of Representatives were deeply split.

Rep. Wayne Owens voted with environmentalists 13 times, according to the scorecard compiled by the League of Conservation Voters.Rep. Jim Hansen voted with the environmentalists once, and Rep. Howard Nielson was with conservationists three times.

Legislation for which votes were tallied covered the Clean Water Act, public land reform, Clean Air Act, energy conservation, transportation, nuclear liability (two votes) nuclear plant licensing, water projects (two votes), endangered species (two), ocean pollution, acid rain, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (two votes).

On Feb. 3, 1987, all three representatives voted in favor of the Clean Water Act, overriding President Reagan's veto. The other environmentally aware votes by Nielson were for the Endangered Species Act.

Owens' anti-environmental ballots were the first vote on nuclear liability, and two involving water projects.

But this overview isn't a thorough comparison. And voters can't really decide between Owens and Hansen, as they represent different districts.

Another way to evaluate is offered by the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, which polled all congressional candidates. Unfortunately, most didn't respond.

Of those running for the House, only Owens and Nielson answered the Sierra Club's questionnaire. Their replies on a few vital issues are illuminating.

Q: Do you favor strong interim protection for wilderness study areas - those areas formally identified and studied by the BLM - until Congress acts?

Owens: Yes.

Nielson: Yes. It should be treated the same as Forest Service study area.

Q: The BLM in Utah proposes that 1.9 million of its 22 million acres be designated wilderness. The Utah Wilderness Coalition of 25 conservation organizations advocate wilderness protection for 5.1 million acres. What is your position?

Owens: I will introduce a bill of approximately 5 million BLM acres next Congress if reelected.

Nielson: I will probably support something near the BLM figure.

Q: The National Park System Plan developed by the National Parks and Conservation Association recommends national park status for the San Rafael, Cedar Mesa and Dirty Devil, and the extension of of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to include the Escalante Canyons. Which of these would you support?

Owens: Uncertain. Probably Glen Canyon extension. Will study others: wilderness or parks?

Nielson: The San Rafael Swell. I have not studied the others.

In the October issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin, some of the answers were inadvertently attributed to the wrong candidates. I was assured by compilers that the next issue will fix this, and that the version published here is correct.

Nielson's office verified his answer on the San Rafael. He told a staff member he meant if there were a choice, he'd prefer a park in the San Rafael over wilderness. He also said he is willing to study the region's value as a potential park.

The questionnaire indicates that a blank score card may not tell the whole story. When it comes to Utah environmental issues, Nielson looks much stronger than his voting record would indicate.

Especially heartening is his willingness to consider a San Rafael Swell National Park.

The San Rafael Reef is a knife-edge blade of rock, between a half a mile and about four miles wide, winding for 55 miles from a region near Hanksville to near Green River. Cut by a dozen fantastic canyons, it is only one border of the Swell.

The Swell is a land of rugged mesas and canyons, deep river gorges, rare and endangered plants, bighorn sheep, incredible vistas through the Little Grand Canyon. All of this country is threatened by off-road vehicles, and the BLM has done almost nothing to protect it.

With more and more national attention focused on protecting the Swell, it's time for our politicians to begin thinking about the advantages, both economic and environmental, of a new national park near Green River.

That Nielson has done this is greatly to his credit.

Questionnaires such as the Sierra Club's are important in the effort to educate ourselves about the issues. Politicians who don't bother to reply do a disservice to both themselves and the electorate.