A year ago I wrote a column wishing that 1988 would be the year of the San Rafael Swell. Well, it isn't.

Although some abortive gestures were made toward protecting this magnificent 1,000-square mile region as a new national park - and several people worked hard setting up meetings - nothing much came of it.While little was happening on the park, the Bureau of Land Management released a proposed management plan that would keep most of the Swell open to uncontrolled off-road vehicle abuse. Over 500 written comments were filed with the BLM.

Jim Dryden, manager of the San Rafael Resource Area, said a final decision is due out in May.

Meanwhile, a move to designate Dinosaur National Monument as Utah's sixth national park (and Colorado's third) is building steam.

It would be "the world's first paleontology national park," says Robert Starr Waite, who is promoting the idea.

Waite, the father of Great Basin National Park just across the Nevada border, has put together a presentation about the park idea.

"With an area of 330 square miles, this would be one of the largest parks in America, exceeded in size only by Canyonlands in Utah, and Rocky Mountain in Colorado," he writes.

He enumerates some of Dinosaur's abundant virtues, factors that caused its protection as a national monument in the first place: fossils, four spectacular canyons, two wild rivers, rugged geology, 40 species of mammals, the Green River's value as a major flyway for migratory birds, endangered fish, three Indian cultures whose artifacts are preserved there, the fascinating history of explorers and bandits and paleontologists.

"Escape into the wilderness, to enjoy the pristine landscapes of America before the advent of cities, freeways, noise, pollution, congestion, and other environmental problems - Dinosaur National Park - over 95 percent wilderness - will provide these luxuries for its visitors," he adds.

Waite also predicts that the park would attract more than 1 million visitors yearly, adding $15 million to the local economy.

He has gathered supporting resolutions from the towns of Dinosaur, Colo., and Vernal, the Utah Travel Regions Board of Directors, Utah Travel Council, Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce and Vernal Area Chamber of Commerce and others.

"As America's 51st national park - ranching, mining, private land use, water rights, fishing, and park boundaries would be unaffected - only the name would change," Waite says.

That's what's wrong with the idea.

A park that doesn't extend any protection, but only boosts tourism, isn't worth creating.

Nothing's harder than hammering out the differences, drawing the lines, making the concessions that are needed to set up a new national park unit. Utah won't bother with any other park soon after doing one.

There's no need for the Dinosaur name change except as an economic boost to the gateway communities. Yet if it happens, the odds are small that we'll ever get another park unit. The anti-park people, who are in the saddle anyway, can say, "Half a dozen is enough!"

On the other hand, the magnificent San Rafael remains unprotected. ORVs cut through gullies and over ridges. They gouge their routes through rare plants, scrape and bang the slickrock.

Pictographs 3,000 years old in South Temple Wash are pocked by snipers. Many of these paintings in Buckhorn Draw have been spray-painted.

Most who support park status for the San Rafael wouldn't want to see it developed. The park would not be a panacea for economic troubles that haunt Hanksville, Orangeville, Castle Dale and other nearby towns. It would be a great ecological preserve, where nature dances to its own slow beat.

Maybe that's why nobody is enthused about a San Rafael park. It won't make money.

But it would do something more important. It would save a wonderful chunk of the Colorado Plateau.

Without strong protection for the San Rafael, the only beneficiaries will be the off-road vehicle owners who are campaigning for unlimited rights to the desert. The losers will be all the rest of us, from nature lovers to ranchers whose rangelands are torn up by bike tracks.

I ask you: is it better to pour more tourists into Vernal, or to hang onto that bitter, harsh, lovely desert wildland called the San Rafael Swell?