While two members of Utah's congressional delegation are preparing wilderness legislation, representatives of both sides of the debate say the time may not be ripe for such a bill.
The bill would cover Bureau of Land Management holdings in Utah, and it has already generated years of controversy. Some environmental groups support more than 5 million acres of wilderness, some sportsmen groups ask for nearly as much, the BLM preliminary recommendation was for 1.9 million acres, and the Legislature is on record as favoring no new wilderness.On the heels of all that confusion, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, has said he is preparing a bill that would designate about 5 million acres, and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, is working on a 1.4-million-acre proposal.
"We haven't been able to compile the specifics on it yet," said Guy Williams, staff assistant and business liaison for Owens. "All I can tell you is Wayne has stated before it will be a bill in the 5-million-acre range."
He predicted it will be introduced before the end of 1989, "but whether in the next month or the next six months, I haven't been able to pin that down."
Peter Jenks, special assistant to Hansen, said Hansen intends to introduce a bill with 1.4 million acres of wilderness.
When? "We're going to be fairly loose about that," Jenks said. "I think that if Wayne Owens drops a bill in that is 5-plus million acres, I think Jim will probably drop his bill the same day."
Meanwhile, Utah's Legislature is considering a resolution urging Congress not to act before the BLM completes its own review and issues its final recommendations.
Greg Thayn, wilderness coordinator for the BLM in Utah, said briefings on the agency's proposal will be held in May, while the final environmental statement will probably be issued by the end of September.
"We believe that it is premature for any member of Congress to introduce legislation until the BLM review process is completed and all the recommendations have been made public," said Booth Wallentine of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.
Waiting until then would give all parties a chance to respond to the final BLM proposal, he said. "There may be some differences between their preliminary and their final" recommendations.
The federation urges Hansen and Owens to hold off on introducing bills, he said.
"We're not in any rush to get a wilderness bill through," agreed Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter. "Right now there's essentially 3.2 million acres of de facto wilderness."
This is land under wilderness review, which the BLM is required to protect as strongly as if it were actually designated for wilderness.
The Sierra Club is anxious to see the BLM's final recommendation. Also, it is assembling a 400-page book, to be sold in bookstores, that will explain the group's position.
"We're still very excited about working with Wayne (Owens) on his 5-million- acre proposal, which is going to be very similar to what the Utah Wilderness Coalition has recommended since 1985," he said.
Speaking of Hansen's idea of a 1.4 million-acre bill, Lukez said, "It is sort of nice to see a Republican in Utah saying more than zero."
Lukez believes environmentalists have enough clout in Congress to prevent passage of any Utah wilderness bill that they consider unacceptable. Whether they can get a bill through Congress is another question, however.
So the stage is being set for another wilderness war in Congress and especially in the House Interior Committee, of which both Hansen and Owens are members.
Hansen even calls the upcoming wilderness debate the "biggest piece of legislation that will directly affect the state of Utah" in Congress this year.
While Hansen and Owens and other groups disagree about how much wilderness should be created on BLM land, it does seem a foregone conclusion that at least some will be created.
"We get a lot of people who are saying we don't need any wilderness, absolutely zero," Hansen said. "I can see where they can feel that way, but it's not realistic."
Hansen said he tells such people that the state now essentially has 3.2 million acres of wilderness area on BLM land - because that is how much was set aside for study, and it is treated as actual wilderness until Congress acts to define how much should be given permanent wilderness status.
Owens predicts that final number will be about 2.1 million acres.
Hansen said, "We have spent a lot of time on this. We have been speaking with people for two or three years. We've tried to get the pulse of the Farm Bureau, the cattlemen, the wool growers, the lumber people, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Association, the Audubon Society, county commissioners."