The Legislature has passed a resolution urging Congress and President Clinton to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of the wild and rugged San Rafael Swell in southern Utah.

Even the Legislature's most ardent anti-wilderness firebrands support the resolution and admit their vote seems more than a little out of character.Wilderness advocates say the measure - which has strong bipartisan support - is less incongruous than it is deceitful.

"This is the first time in my memory I've seen a program that comes to the middle ground," declared Rep. Brad Johnson, R-Aurora, the conservative chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

It was Johnson who last year proposed appropriating land owned by actor Robert Redford for wilderness designation.

Redford had angered Johnson and others by his vocal defense of President Clinton's election-year decision to set aside 1.7 million acres of southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Now, Johnson and other members of the powerful rural caucus were absolutely effusive over another plan that would set aside nearly 1 million acres of the San Rafael Swell, which straddles Emery and Carbon counties, as a national heritage-conservation area.

The plan, according to sponsoring Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, would help coordinate local, state and federal agencies to protect the natural resources. It would provide for inventory and use of cultural and historic sites, as well as protect critical areas, Dmitrich said.

The proposal has the support of both county commissions, which traditionally have chafed at federal land managers. Most of the land involved is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Much of the area would also be declared a national conservation area, which would provide for additional protection. It would include hundreds of thousands of acres currently designated as wilderness studies areas. It would also set aside nearly 35,000 acres as a primitive Desert Bighorn Sheep Management Area.