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Robert Redford

WASHINGTON — Some people celebrate their 40th birthday with black balloons and condolences.

But for advocates of wilderness, the birthday of the Wilderness Act of 1964 was a reason to celebrate. And they did so Sunday evening with a decidedly Utah flair.

"Wilderness is the ultimate open space of democracy," said the grand dame of Utah wordsmiths, Terry Tempest Williams.

Williams was joined by independent film icon and Sundance resident Robert Redford, both commemorating the 40th birthday of the Wilderness Act during a gala celebration at the National Press Club in Washington, attended by hundreds of wilderness proponents, lawmakers and administration officials.

It was a festive event that focused on the victories of days gone by and the challenges still ahead. And the biggest challenge, Redford said, is that wilderness — originally a bipartisan idea hailed by conservatives and liberals alike to keep environmental treasures pristine — has become a political quagmire.

"This should be above politics, but, sadly, this isn't the case today," Redford said.

The anniversary offered a chance for conservationists to reflect on the past 40 years and whether the nation has inched toward the dream envisioned in 1964.

The first wilderness bill that year designated 9 million acres of wilderness. Today, there are 106 million acres of wilderness.

A success? Maybe, says an optimistic Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, in Washington to participate in the festivities.

"We've come a long ways," he said. "The Bureau of Land Management has on-the-ground protection of 4 to 5 million acres (of Utah wilds)."

In many ways, Utah is the poster child for the national wilderness movement. It has millions of acres of redrock deserts and canyons worthy of official designation, advocates say.

But desert wilderness has remained elusive, at least in terms of congressionally sanctioned wilderness. (Only Congress can designate wilderness.) Bills have been sent to Congress time and again, only to be killed by one interest or another.

Gov. Olene Walker is the latest head of state to wade into the wilderness bog by appointing citizen groups and task forces to study ways to resolve the decades-old impasse. Groups have been meeting in Washington County to hammer out a proposal.

Others admit they are waiting to see what happens with the Walker experiment — and what happens with the gubernatorial election in November.

But wilderness advocates are in it for the long haul.

"The Wilderness Act has given individuals great places to see and visit," said Peter Metcalf, a member of the governor's task force and president of Black Diamond, a Utah manufacturer of outdoor equipment. "Our economic base depends on it."

Metcalf was singled out Sunday night for forcing a broader discussion about Utah wilderness, in particular his opposition to a deal cut between former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton that removed some interim protections for proposed wilderness areas on BLM lands.

Wilderness designation has become a political hot potato in recent years, especially in light of the Bush administration's push for more oil and gas development on public lands. Many of those leases have been issued in Utah in areas near and dear to the hearts of wilderness advocates.

That reality cast a pall over the festivities, even though the participants did their best to celebrate.

"Tonight we are above politics," Williams said. "Tonight is a night to celebrate. Without wilderness we will lose our humanity."

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