Although he's close to filing a bill that would classify 5 million more Utah acres as protected wilderness, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, realizes the fight over the future of the state's land has just begun.
The sharp differences between Owens and the state's other leaders were apparent Friday as he met with Gov. Norm Bangerter, who believes fewer than 2 million more acres should be protected.Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, is expected to file a bill soon that would designate only 1.4 million additional acres as wilderness.
In the informal meeting, requested by Owens, the congressman said there is no reason to make a hasty decision. "There's no real economic pressure on those lands right now," he said.
But it was clear much work remains if the state's leaders are to take a united stance on the matter. The issue is whether land that now is pristine and hard to reach should be protected forever from mining and other development. Utah already has 802,000 acres of protected wilderness and five major national parks. The federal government owns 70 percent of the land within the state.
"I think we have to preserve as much land as possible for development," Bangerter said, adding that hikers and backpackers have plenty of room in Utah and add little to the economy.
"Why lock up land where development is a potential?" he said.
Owens said backpackers and tourists have nothing to do with the issue. "This is a question of protecting mountains and valleys," he said. "It's a question of not disturbing the unique beauty God and Mother Nature intended to be there. I think the case can be made that 5 million acres will help the state's economy."
Bangerter disagreed, saying mining and natural resources promise to continue to be essential to the state's economic future.
Owens' proposal would include 44 parcels in the northeast and southeast sections of the state. The federal Bureau of Land Management is studying 3.2 million acres in Utah and is expected to recommend how much of that land should be protected.
Until the study is finished, the 3.2 million acres is off limits to developers. Owens said no one currently is interested in developing the remaining 1.8 million acres in his plan.
Owens said the BLM's study should include more land. "Any area with even a jeep trail was excluded," he said.
Bangerter disagreed, noting he believes residents of the state's rural areas oppose more designated wilderness.
"We ought to pay attention to the local governments and the people who live there," he said.