Utah's members of Congress concede they may be one move from yet another annual stalemate on how much wilderness to protect on the state's U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas.
After a closed-door meeting this week, members said they do not yet agree on which of many wilderness options to pursue - but they do concur that some out-of-the-ordinary help is needed for anything to have a realistic chance."We've got to have some reasonable environmental help," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
He and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said the delegation and its staff hope to sit down with local environmentalists to see if they can find a compromise. Otherwise, they say waging another wilderness fight is a waste of time in Congress this year.
"There are some groups out there that are unreasonable. But there are others, who are some of the leading environmental people, we can work with," Hatch said.
Hansen added, "If they sit down and talk, I think we can come up with a reasonable solution."
But if that doesn't happen, Hansen said he's likely not to take any time on what would be a pointless battle anyway.
"It's a short session in a political (election) year. We have a platter full of other issues," Hansen said. "Frankly, it's not an overriding issue with me. Contrary to what some of our environmentalists friends say, we could live without this."
Options the delegation are considering include:
- A proposal by Hansen to create 4.1 million acres of wilderness. That would include 2.8 million in BLM red rock areas, and 1.3 million in areas already in national parks. (Years ago, Republicans first proposed only 1.4 million acres of wilderness).
- A proposal by Gov. Mike Leavitt to protect any areas that all groups agree should be wilderness (mainly the Book Cliffs), and incrementally adopt others later as agreements are reached.
- A proposal to create a 1 million-acre national heritage-conservation area in the San Rafael Swell, which would have a mix of wilderness, conservation areas, campgrounds, trail systems and multiple-use areas allowing such things as grazing.
All five delegation members said the group is looking at some mix of those, and maybe others, to counter a proposal by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., to create 5.7 million acres of wilderness in Utah.
Currently, 3.2 million acres of "Wilderness Study Areas" are treated as if they are formal wilderness until Congress decides the decades-old battle. However, the BLM has also been protecting the "wilderness values" of other areas in Hinchey's 5.7 million-acre proposal, so an agreement of smaller acreage could free up some land for other uses.
"People in the affected counties are absolutely outraged by those Eastern interests that want 5.7 million acres," Hatch said. "They're not overjoyed about the 4.1 million-acre approach either."
But, he added, "If we do that, I think we'd be able to convince them that is a viable approach that in the end is better than nothing."
Hatch added a main reason the delegation hopes to push something this year is to take advantage of Hansen's position as chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, through which wilderness bills must pass.
"We've never had a person in a better position to help us on this issue than Congressman Hansen. I hope we can work out something," Hatch said.