Designating wilderness in Utah is an all-or-nothing issue, an unfortunate reality facing Rep. Chris Cannon as he attempts to reserve 355,000 acres of the San Rafael Swell for wilderness or other protection.
Welcome to the cat fight, congressman.Cannon - with others willing to piecemeal wilderness in an effort to find common ground upon which to build - deserves credit for his effort. But the strength of opponents lining up to oppose him is formidable. They include environmentalists, most of whom are puzzled at the meaning of "com-pro-mise," some Democrats and his GOP colleague Rep. Merrill Cook - strange bedfellows, indeed. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said a presidential veto awaits if the bill ever gets that far.
Stranger yet is that anyone would experience angst at bipartisan legislation that could provide a reasonable step forward in such a vexing divisive issue. This bill hits at a time when, despite a recent wilds reinventory that upped the ante to 8.5 million acres, groups on both sides profess a willingness for greater give and take. Opposition to Cannon's bill speaks otherwise.
Drafted with input from local county officials in east-central Utah and introduced in April, the legislation specifies 140,456 acres of the swell as wilderness; 120,695 acres as semi-primitive areas, allowing limited motorized and overflight access; 27,670 acres as "critical environmental concerns"; and 66,071 acres for desert bighorn sheep herds.
Last week, the bill passed the House Resources Committee on a party-line voice vote, with Cannon and Rep. Jim Hansen speaking for it. An optimistic Cannon spokesman said that should signal smooth sailing through the full House, something that would in fact be very surprising. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett has introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance wants the sheep areas protected as pure wilderness and adamantly opposes any piecemeal approach. Cannon correctly counters that the sheep herds would be depleted if wildlife managers could not reach them with motorized land vehicles and helicopters.
Given the nature and history of wilderness legislation, it would be a minor miracle if the Utah congressman can bring enough factions together for passage of this measure. Then again, it never hurts to try.