Deseret Morning News graphic

Wilderness land area in Utah could more than triple with a proposal announced Wednesday for an additional 3.6 million protected acres.

The plan, created by a coalition of environmental groups including Save Our Canyons and Red Rock Forests, would add nearly three-quarters of Dixie Forest, Fishlake Forest and Manti-La Sal Forest to the state's roughly 1 million acres of wilderness land.

"This is big, beautiful, wild country. But we're going to lose all of it to poor forest management," Ray Wheeler said.

Wheeler, a volunteer who has worked on the proposal for more than five years, said without protecting southern Utah's national forests from motorized vehicles and logging, the areas will soon be destroyed.

"Every single day, year after year, road construction is happening," Wheeler said. "We have to make a choice. Are we going to save the ponderosa pines, or are we going to cut down all the big old trees so they're just a memory?"

Although the proposal is complete, Red Rock Forests board member Kevin Walker said the drive to take the measure to Congress for approval is likely at least a year down the road. With a recent government track record of denying wilderness designations, Walker said the group's best bet is to wait for a more preservation-friendly climate.

"Before you can get momentum behind legislation, things have to start from the grass-roots level," he said. "We're trying to get them whipped up and enthusiastic."

A wilderness designation would still allow hiking, hunting and grazing, but would restrict vehicle recreation on the land. Walker said the proposal tries to strike a balance between preservation and recreation to appease off-roading enthusiasts.

A more limited trail will still run through parts of the forests for vehicles, he said, with nearly half of the wilderness land still within a mile of a road. Roughly 80 percent of the forests are now within a mile of roadways.

"If things continue on their current trend, non-motorized users are going to be pushed out by motorcycles and ATVs," Walker said. "This proposal is so (that) future generations will know the same Utah with all its natural resources that we do."

The proposal includes acreage from several areas: the Abajo Mountains, La Sal Mountains, Sevier Plateau, Canyon Mountains, Markagunt Plateau, Monroe Mountain, Pavant Mountains, Pine Valley Mountains, Tushar Mountains, Wasatch Plateau and the Aquarius wilderness.