The Utah wilderness debate has stymied virtually every politician who has tried to negotiate the political quagmire.
Now, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, says his bill designating a national San Rafael heritage and conservation area - a proposal developed by Emery County - may finally break the stalemate. But Utah wilderness advocates say it's the same old anti-wilderness song and dance that has been defeated time and again."I hope they will come forward and sit down at the table with us because this is an issue with a lot to gain for everybody, no matter how extreme your position," Cannon said. "Coming together on this issue changes the whole nature of the (wilderness) debate."
Not so, says Scott Groene, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It's an anti-wilderness bill with distracting bells and whistles. It removes protection now in place for hundreds of square miles of wilderness study areas and once again tries to redefine wilderness."
Cannon's bill approaches the wilderness from the perspective that designating wilderness - including banning cars, roads, machines, mining and grazing - need not be the only way to preserve pristine land. His bill calls for a hybrid that would include some traditional wilderness areas but would also free up additional land for limited ranching and other developments, and seek to enhance visitor attractions in the area for a national audience.
The bill calls for a national conservation area that would include:
- 407,471 acres of traditional wilderness (where no machines, roads or buildings are allowed).
- 193,723 acres of "semi-primitive" areas, where limited motorized access and overflights would be allowed.
- 66,071 acres for a Desert Bighorn Sheep management area, and an additional 22,670 acres "of critical environmental concern."
Besides that, it would create a national heritage area covering Emery, Carbon and part of Sanpete counties to allow integrated management, enhancement and promotion of tourist at-tractions there.
Cannon said they would include the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry, the Old Spanish Trail, the Outlaw Trail, Native American sites, several museums and sites marking the activities of such people as Kit Carson, Butch Cas-sidy and John C. Fremont.
Cannon said the proposal, which would cover nearly 1 million acres, "proves that balancing restrictive wilderness protections with less restrictive recreational use is possible."
He added, "We believe that this legislation addresses the concerns of environmentalists, ranchers and recreational enthusiasts alike.
"There are areas to ride motorbikes, and areas where no motor will ever be heard. The balance . . . restricts some areas to foot traffic for hiking, camping and wildlife observation, yet allows for limited recreating, cattle grazing and mineral development in other areas."
Cannon said the bill allows for the eventual expiration of grazing permits (there is little grazing now in the San Rafael Swell) and relinquishment of some county claims to dirt roads. Both concessions are intriguing to conservationists.
However, some environmental groups say they do not want the proposal to cut into the amount of lands they would prefer to have protected as formal wilderness - so it may not yet be the end of decades-long fight over how much wilderness to protect.
Groene said hundreds of square miles of land now protected as wilderness study areas would lose protection under the proposal. Additional lands identified in a 5.7 million-acre wilderness proposal would also not be protected, although exactly how much has not been determined.
"It's a net loss for environmental protection," he said.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, has scheduled a hearing on the proposal for April 23 before his House Resources Committee on National Parks and Public Lands.
The Utah Legislature has also endorsed the idea, and Gov. Mike Leavitt provided the technical assistance to Emery County to come up with the proposal, which has been developed over the past couple of years.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, plans soon to introduce similar legislation in the Senate, said his press secretary, Mary Jane Collipriest. U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Pat Shea, a native Utahn, also plans to visit the San Rafael area this weekend to study the idea.
And in a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee this week, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promised Bennett that he would return to Utah later this summer to visit the San Rafael area with him.