"Let the debate begin."

That challenge concludes a letter about wilderness from Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, to one of his Republican counterparts from Utah, Rep. Jim Hansen.And Hansen immediately takes up the challenge, writing back to Owens that maybe it's better to say, "Let the wild rumpus start."

Excerpts from both letters, given to the Deseret News by a Hansen aide, show a dramatic split in attitude toward wilderness - a split reflected in Owens' earlier-stated intention of introducing a bill to designate about 5 million acres, and Hansen's support of about 1.4 million acres.

The extraordinary exchange of letters seems to be staking out the opposing ground over which the wilderness battle will be fought. On one hand, Owens cites the interests of all Americans in protecting public land, while Hansen champions the "multiple use" concept of land use.

Meanwhile, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows that many Utahns don't know how much land should be designated wilderness, and about the same number think it should be less than 1 million acres as those who favor more than 6 million. (See chart).

Owens says he intends to examine all Bureau of Land Management property that has legitimate wilderness values. He will not limit the study to only the 3.9 million acres in official BLM wilderness study areas.

He intends to introduce a wilderness bill in two weeks. A final recommendation by the BLM is due later this year.

Hansen claimed Owens' bill would be premature because the BLM hasn't finished its study.

"The BLM's prejudgments should not be determinative," Owens wrote. "I am determined that all legitimate wilderness possibilities be considered."

Hansen retorted, "I was disappointed to read that you intend to introduce your wilderness bill before the BLM has made its final recommendations. I believe that this is premature and it seems to indicate little regard for the BLM and its ability to carry out its congressional mandate of identifying wilderness within its jurisdiction."

Hansen advocated waiting until the BLM has made its final recommendations before introducing a wilderness bill.

Owens said the public should be consulted on the wilderness designations, "from both inside and outside the state . . .. During the past 10 years, the conservation philosophy of the majority of Utahns and of the nation as a whole has evolved dramatically.

"Residents along the Wasatch Front are major users of the state's parks and wilderness and must have a key role in the process." Also, Owens said, the interests of the millions who visit Utah from around the world must be considered.

Hansen replied, "I differ with you regarding the goal of the bill. In my opinion, the people of Utah should be the first consideration and the interests of the population of the United States at large are secondary."

"Utah's scenic wonders are our birthright," Owens wrote to Hansen. "The process for their protection should guarantee the highest standard of review, not seek the lowest common denominator.

"Your proposed process would seek to set local non-renewable and temporary economic benefits as the controlling criterion and that would be a very shortsighted mistake indeed. The approach initiated by the BLM began more than 10 years ago and incorporates value judgments and discretionary determinations that are now outdated.

"It would be irresponsible to design a wilderness designation process that excluded major constituencies from participation."

Hansen said, "I agree that Utah's scenic wonders are a birthright. However, I feel that since the pioneers first came to our valleys we have done an admirable job of protecting the land.

"Our stewardship should be to protect the land in a multiple-use concept. The multiple-use concept has been successful throughout the West, and I feel it should continue."

Both men said it would be best for the members of Congress themselves to review wilderness areas in person, rather than leave that task to staffers.

*****

(chart)

DUELING CONGRESSMEN

Owens:

The public "from both inside and outside the state" should be consulted on the wilderness designations.

Hansen:

"The people of Utah should be the first consideration and the interests of the population of the United States at large are secondary."

Owens:

"Utah's scenic wonders are our birthright. The process for their protection should guarantee the highest standard of review, not seek the lowest common denominator."

Hansen:

"I agree that Utah's scenic wonders are a birthright. However, I feel that since the pioneers first came to our valleys we have done an admirable job of protecting the land."

*****

(Poll)

How many acres of land in Utah do you believe should be designated will wilderness by the Bureau of Land Management?

Less than 1 million 16%

1 to 1.9 million 7%

2 to 2.9 million 9%

3 to 3.9 million 10%

4 to 4.9 million 7%

5 to 5.9 million 4%

6 million or more 13%

No wilderness 1%

Don't know 32%

*Sample size: 605; margin of error plus or minus 4%