San Francisco — At a time of heated political rhetoric on the environment, the Arizona Strip Wilderness bill is a rare gem: wilderness legislation that almost everyone supports.
More important, the bill represents the growing willingness of environmentalists and industrial leaders to work out their differences rather than battle endlessly in Congress and in court.
The Arizona Strip is just north of Grand Canyon National Park. It is a geologically distinct region of rugged canyons, cliffs, and buttes covering 6 million acres and extending into southern Utah. Besides being ecologically linked to the Grand Canyon National Park, the region is rich in minerals, particularly high-grade uranium.
''This area has some supreme examples of the spectacular land forms which exist here in the Southwest,'' enthuses Arizona Sierra Club representative Sherman Cawley.
At the same time, ''We think this is the only area in the US with uranium ore rich enough to compete with foreign sources,'' explains Pam Hill, public relations director for Energy Fuels Nuclear, a private uranium mining and milling company active in the area.
For nearly a decade such conflicting views of the region have fueled a heated controversy as the federal government has tried to determine what areas should be protected as wilderness and what should remain open for other uses. Since 1976 the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars studying the area. Yet the future of nearly a million acres remains in limbo. And according to Bill Lamb, district manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it would likely take the government another 2 to 10 years to come up with its recommendations to Congress on the disposition of this valuable real estate.
This unsettled situation changed July 13 when the Arizona Strip Wilderness bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate, sponsored by one of the most diverse casts of politicians ever to unite behind a piece of environmental legislation. Lead sponsor of the House version, Bob Stump (R) of Arizona, has never before voted for a wilderness bill, let alone sponsored one. On the Senate side, he is joined by the likes of conservative Republicans Jake Garn of Utah and Barry Goldwater of Arizona who are among the sponsors there. At the same time, Rep. Morris K. Udall (D) of Arizona, an environmental champion, and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona support the measure with equal enthusiasm.
The bill's unusually broad spectrum of support stems from its unique origin. It is the result of direct negotiations between Energy Fuels Nuclear, which owns 85 percent of the mining claims in the area, and an environmental coalition consisting primarily of Russ Butcher from the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Sierra Club's Mr. Cawley, and Mike Scott of the Wilderness Society.
''Because this was a highly polarized situation, we felt we were at risk entering into these negotiations. But we dared to get out on the thin ice and the result was an exciting adventure in the democratic process,'' Mr. Butcher says.
Both sides were spurred by the prospect of up to a decade delay in settling the issue. Environmentalists were concerned that uranium exploration would seriously erode wilderness values in the interim. And Energy Fuels was disturbed by the outlook of continued restrictions on their activities, which have driven exploration costs up as much as tenfold.
So last winter the two groups met face to face in Phoenix to see if anything could be done. At first the discussions were very tentative, say those involved. But after the first few meetings, a feeling of mutual respect and trust began to grow. As a result, they found they could get down to serious negotiating.
There was a good deal of acreage that neither party was concerned about. But both ended up making some heavy concessions. The environmentalists gave up the southern end of the dramatic Grand Wash Cliffs. Energy Fuels ceded some promising areas along Kanab Creek.
By March, the negotiations resulted in an agreement to designate 395,000 acres as wilderness and return 672,000 acres to multiple use. And the second phase of the process, building political support for the compromise, began.
The group first took its proposal to the Arizona Strip Grazing Board, a local ranchers' organization. After some further concessions, they won the ranchers' approval. Next, Energy Fuels gained the endorsement of the two other mining companies working in the area. Then they approached local chambers of commerce. Although the people in this rural area are generally hostile to wilderness proposals, the company persuaded them that this would be better for the local economy than the status quo.
Having solid, grass-roots support for the measure was the key to gaining the backing of conservatives like Representative Stump, explains Energy Fuel's Ms. Hill, who was one of the company negotiators. Meanwhile, the environmentalists had lined up the support of their political backers. The ultimate result of this politicking was the backing of the entire Arizona and Utah congressional delegations.
''It's sure been refreshing,'' comments BLM's Mr. Lamb. ''We've been trying to get people to negotiate like this for a long time. It's really the best way to manage the land.''
Although there were some unique circumstances that made the Arizona Strip particularly suited to such a settlement, a number of those involved report a greater willingness on the part of both industry and environmentalists to negotiate now than in the past. And all say they hope to see more such efforts in the future.
''Perhaps we're just flushed with success, but we're going to try the same approach for the rest of (Arizona),'' adds Wilderness Society's Mr. Scott.
Senator DeConcini is also hopeful that the wilderness issue can be resolved as successfully for the remainder of his state: ''This has set a good precedent. It shows what can be done when you go about it in the right way.''