One way to start an argument in Utah is to mention wilderness and ask how much of this protected land there ought to be in the state. Opinions invariably are strongly held and emotions intense.
The debate has raged for years, but a 10-year study by the Bureau of Land Management on possible wilderness areas is due to be released soon. The findings are sure to touch off heated discussion as Congress prepares to follow through in naming new wilderness areas.Views on wilderness range from a "no more wilderness" stance taken in 1986 by the Legislature and various business, farming and ranching groups, to a plea by some environmentalists for the setting aside of more than 5 million acres.
The opposition to wilderness is understandable in a state where there are already 802,000 acres of wilderness, five major national parks, and where the federal government owns 70 percent of the land.
Opponents tend to feel that wilderness "locks up" resources and shuts out more profitable use of the land. This sentiment is particularly strong in the southern part of the state - an economically depressed area where most of the proposed wilderness would be located.
A poll taken in 1986 showed Utahns along the Wasatch Front nearly evenly divided on the issue, with southern Utahns significantly opposed. A 1987 study by Brigham Young University indicated considerable support for more wilderness.
Backers of "no more wilderness" recognize that Congress will eventually pass a bill setting aside wilderness in Utah. Their goal is to see that the amount is kept as small as possible.
But the Utah congressional delegation is divided on the question. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, whose district is in Salt Lake City and County, is talking about introducing a bill seeking 5 million acres of wilderness in the state. That is considerably more than the entire 3.2 million acres the BLM has been reviewing as possible wilderness.
The four GOP members of the Utah delegation have not publicly agreed on a wilderness figure, although numbers like 1.4 million to 1.9 million acres have been mentioned in the past. They may support whatever acreage is recommended by the BLM.
There is a serious problem in having a divided congressional delegation. Other members of Congress from other parts of the country may look at this "house divided" and decide it can be safely ignored.
Unless Utah's senators and representatives can work out their differences and speak with one voice, they may lose influence over a crucial issue in their own state.
Nobody on either side is going to get all he wants on this question. All members of the delegation should recognize that fact and act quickly to work out a compromise so they can present a united front.
That's asking a lot, seeing as how Utahns themselves are in disagreement. But it's something that must be done if Utah is going to exert control over its own wilderness destiny.