Rep. Owens said, "Let the debate begin." Rep. Hansen responded, "Let the wild rumpus start." Both were referring to wilderness with Owens being the author of a 5.1 million-acre BLM wilderness bill, HR 1500. Not too surprisingly, Hansen authored HR 1501, a 1.4 million-acre bill patterned after one of the alternatives considered by the BLM.
Meanwhile, BLM has identified 3.2 million acres of wilderness study areas, making a 1.9 million-acre preliminary recommendation. The Utah Wilderness Association has had a 3.8 million-acre recommendation since 1985.What is so difficult about seeking consensus rather than positioning ourselves to justify proposals that may result in wilderness acres (or lack of acres) with no substance behind them?
Implicit in both HR 1500 and 1501 is the assumption that a maximum or minimum wilderness bill will be shoved through Congress and the trade-off may well be that all other lands will be subject to development.
Wilderness is only one issue - as important as any other, but only one. Wilderness has become an icon. But when wildernesses are designated, wildlife will still be threatened, watersheds will still be hammered by too many sheep or cattle, and hillsides denuded by ORVs.
And we will not even have addressed the dozens of absolutely crucial environmental issues that have nothing or little to do with wilderness - issues that are, in fact, threatening all life on the planet.
If we can't solve wilderness issues with some degree of consensus, success, respect and dignity, then the other issues we are facing will not be solved either.
Because we have positioned wilderness as right vs. wrong, environmentalist vs. non-environmentalist, the debate generates heat and questionable wilderness boundaries. We need to shift in another direction. Of all the values and lessons wilderness has taught, communication is not one of them.
The position of protecting large intact wildernesses is represented by Owens. But that position obviously can be met, depending upon the particular goal for each area, with less than 5 million acres.
The position Hansen seems to represent is less clear but seems to strive for a very pure wilderness, economic development and meeting the fears of rural population.
Clearly, that can be achieved with more than 1.4 million acres. For example, the Hansen bill leaves out some of the most wild and important wildlife habitat in Utah, the Book Cliffs. But rather than articulating those interests, both men, with support from particular constituents, have pursued only positions.
Another approach may well be to use wilderness to teach us to talk with one another and to deal with people of different vision with respect and decency.
By stating the interests and dropping the positions we may find that the Deep Creeks, Escalante, Grand Gulch, Desolation Canyon, the San Rafael and many others should be designated as wilderness, everybody's interests are met and positions are left behind.
Of course, this won't work if a "no wilderness" position is consistently pushed by organizations such as the Farm Bureau, Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, the Utah Cattlemen's Association and many others that are part of the Utah Public Lands Multiple Use Coalition, because a "no wilderness" position is mutually exclusive of any interests in designating wilderness.
Such a position is often based on broad stroke generalities and misrepresentations. It is equally clear a "no compromise" position by wilderness proponents is equally exclusive.
Common sense also tells us that even if this consensus-seeking approach works to perfection there will still be plenty of "face-offs" that will likely result in the more standard political trade-offs.
But we believe this consensus-building process will highlight the value of wilderness and the need to understand and respect land as something more than commodity.
It will also force us to realize that the debate surrounding wilderness is not in a vacuum - people, lifestyles, communities and cultures are a significant part of the debate. We aren't left with a luxury of building such appreciation for our environment and its diverse values with respect to global warming or ozone deterioration. It may well be these catastrophic environmental situations exist because we have failed to build foundations that result in understanding the complex life systems on this planet.
We should be using wilderness and all of its remarkable attendant values to resolve these problems, rather than creating them.