People have strong feelings about how our public land should be managed. But in making the hard decisions, there's no good way to take account of them.

"We Need All The Industry We Can Get In Garfield County, The Environmentalists Have Blocked Every Industry We Have Tried To Get, We Think It Is About Time Something Was Done About It." - a letter from two Garfield County residents."We the people, the grass roots, wish to protest and oppose any granting of leases for development of resources in or near wilderness areas . . .. Your `NO' is in the `We the people' interest." - excerpt from letter from Sedona, Ariz.

These are just two of 1,238 letters and comments offered to the U.S. Forest Service in its evaluation of carbon dioxide leasing in the Box Death Hollow region of Garfield County.

Published along with a recently-released final environmental impact statement, they are a remarkable, often touching, collection - but nearly 1,000 of them were worthless to the Forest Service. Only 10 percent of the comments addressed specific factual shortcomings in the draft statement, according to the agency.

All who commented want a say in the future of this rugged land of sandstone ridges and canyons, about 80,000 acres located near Escalante. But they don't really have a say.

"It's not a vote," said Hugh C. Thompson, the Dixie National Forest supervisor in Cedar City. A public comment period on an environmental impact statement is "to examine whether or not we've really considered everything we should."

For example, environmentalists pointed out that in the draft environmental statement, the "no action alternative" wasn't really "no action." It was the alternative that would have the agency honor present leases issued in the region, which cover 12,355 acres.

So the Forest Service had to rewrite its studies, inventing a new "no action alternative," in which nothing would happen in the lease region - that is, no development whatever.

That would require Congress passing an appropriation to buy back lease rights already issued, as these are the legal property of the development companies. The agency points out this is the "environmentally preferred alternative."

In the end, predictably, the Forest Service didn't change its mind about anything. As with the draft environmental statement, issued in August 1987, the decision is to offer new leases for oil, gas, and carbon dioxide for all available land in the Escalante Known Geological Structure.

Existing leases would be developed in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness and the Bureau of Land Management's Phipps-Death Hollow Instant Study Area.

Antone Bench and other areas kept out of the 1984 Forest Service Wilderness Act, places that have wilderness characteristics, will also be developed.

Altogether, the chosen alternative will lease 36,936 acres in addition to the 12,355 already under lease. It will allow 65 carbon dioxide wells and 32 oil wells, 126 miles of roads to wells, 55 miles of pipelines and power lines, 35 miles of timber roads.

"Activities associated with the drilling of wells and construction of roads, and facilities will be seen and heard within these areas," the report concedes.

The debate is a furious one because the issues are important.

Nearly all of the letters and comments fell into two categories: (1) We want development because the area's economy is suffering; (2) We think wilderness is a precious resource that should be protected.

"Either one of those was of limited value," Thompson said. "It gives us a sense of what they felt, but it didn't really give us anything we could sink our teeth into.

"We were looking to see if we had overlooked any major issues or concerns as we evaluated the project. Is there just some factor that we flat missed?"

Leafing through the 4-pound-plus public comment appendix, you'd think the Forest Service had conducted a town meeting about the desirability of leasing.

Photographs of beautiful scenery. Letters from 10-year-old backpackers. Philosophy and description and eloquence about nourishing souls. These records will be a wonderful resource for the future, voices from the heart, an intellectual Domesday Book from the late 20th Century.

Sometimes it looks like somebody tried to stuff a ballot box. These are the form letters: "We, the undersigned, Government representatives and Staff for (Town/County) - - , Utah, want to go on record as strongly supporting Alternative V . . . It has been shown that there will be no adverse impact on the area. There are only advantages for the people in the area to be gained."

The lists of signatures on that variety of form letter are often headed by city council members, county council members, mayors. They are followed by their employees - making you wonder what would have happened to an employee who was in favor of wilderness preservation.

Other form letters carry instructions about how to fill them out, saying to mail them by Oct. 14, 1987. They have this printed on them: "My/Our REASON(S) FOR APPROVING THIS is/are:"

None of these people had their letters tallied as intended. They thought they were influencing policy but they weren't.

The public comment process is not working, partly because citizens think it will accomplish what it really should do - put into effect their wishes. But the system wasn't designed for that. It was intended to gather facts, not opinions.

What's wrong with opinions?

Opinions are a synthesis of facts, feelings, personal history, intuition. They are valid. In elections, people generally vote their opinions regardless of facts like the candidate's age, or number of years in public service.

Anybody who doesn't trust the public's instincts has no respect for democracy. Some way ought to be devised to take account of feelings in this sort of debate.