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Tom Smart, Deseret News archives
Desolation Canyon is among 18 backcountry areas Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said merit wilderness protections by Congress.
The long-term solutions for these lands in question will come from a locally-driven process, not dictates out of Washington.

MOAB — Desolation, Westwater and Mill Creek canyons in Utah's Grand County are among 18 backcountry areas Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said merit wilderness protections by Congress.

Salazar, in a Thursday teleconference, stressed that the list he released is by no means all-inclusive, but represents a starting point for the country to move forward on conservation of America's landscapes.

"These recommendations can serve as a bipartisan public lands agenda," Salazar said. "They're not the only places that deserve attention from Congress."

The areas from nine states were culled from a host of recommendations and final selections were based on those geographic areas where wilderness protections enjoy the greatest local support, he added.

In Utah's selection process, for example, Salazar points out that the Grand County Council is in favor of the recommendations and has forwarded a "serious proposal" for the designation of a total of 11 wilderness areas.

"The foundation of this report to Congress is the sense that there is community support for these designations," Salazar said. "In the case of Utah, it does not include every place where people said we ought to move forward and make into a wilderness area."

The Thursday list issued by Salazar is the latest in political cat and mouse game between the Interior secretary and conservatives in the West. First, Salazar came out with a controversial secretarial order directing federal land managers to assess land for potential wilderness characteristics.

That order died after political furor erupted, so Salazar went back to congressional representatives, asking for their input. Absent the input in some circumstances, he's nevertheless come out with this list, which is already being met with criticism from Utah's congressional delegation.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, quickly denounced the report.

"I am deeply disappointed that Interior Secretary Salazar continues to be tone deaf about public lands issues in Utah," Matheson said. "As our success in Washington County shows, wilderness proposals must be the result of a grass-roots, stakeholder-driven process, rather than a top-down decree. This is not the way to make progress on public lands decisions and it only ensures that we won't see a successful outcome on the ground here."

In an ironic twist, Salazar used the Washington County lands bill as an example of how locally driven efforts can achieve wilderness protections.

"There is significant potential, in the near term, to foster additional consensus-focused conservation efforts in Utah," the report said.

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While Salazar stressed that his recommendations do not equate to a proposal for legislation or agency action, his assurances didn't go far.

"The long-term solutions for these lands in question will come from a locally driven process, not dictates out of Washington," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

All five members of Utah's congressional delegation penned a letter to Salazar in September asking that the state be excluded from any recommendations he might make. In the letter, they said 22 of 29 counties expressed a similar sentiment, fearing that any top directive would undermine any progress made on land bills made so far.

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