DENVER — The rush is on.
No, not for gold, and not for oil. Rather, it's a new push to preserve the wilderness of the West - pristine, pure, and inaccessible to all but God's creatures and the most intrepid hiker.
The recent introduction of a wilderness bill in Congress points to a new urgency among some Western lawmakers to set aside more land for protection.
Confronted with a blistering rate of growth, environmentalists and some officials in the region are worried the pressure for development will simply overrun acreage they'd like to consider preserving for posterity.
As a result, they are trying to get Congress to add to America's 104.7 million acres of "official" wilderness - an area now slightly larger than Montana. Efforts to increase wilderness are gaining momentum in New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, and a Colorado congresswoman has already offered a bill to boost the state's wilderness acreage by almost a third.
"Civilization is creeping ever closer to the edges of these beautiful areas," says Rep. Diana DeGette (D) of Colorado. If her wilderness bill passes, it would be "a bellwether for increased wilderness legislation in the West," says the fourth-generation Coloradan, who worries that rapid growth will erode the natural beauty that attracts people to her state in the first place.
The new wilderness push - which probably faces an uphill battle -coincides with an influx of newcomers to the region, many of whom revel in the great outdoors. Gradually, they are changing the land-use sensibilities of the West - and opening the way for greater environmental protections.
"The movement is toward more environmental protection and more wilderness issues," says Ron Little, a natural-resource specialist at Utah State University in Logan. "Newcomers have changed the balance of power in the West away from resource-extraction industries."
The classic example is Moab, Utah, a conservative Mormon community that metamorphosed into "a hotbed of environmentalism" and a destination spot for Lycra-clad mountain bikers, he says.
As expected, the prospect of more wilderness lands is touching off concern among the industries that built the West - mining, oil and gas, logging, and ranching. A newer but equally mighty foe is the recreation-vehicle industry. When land is set aside as wilderness, mechanized activities and development - such as drilling and road-building - are banned for the conceivable future.
"Wilderness is something like apple pie, motherhood, and baseball: It's the idea that everyone loves," says Marc Smith of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States in Denver. But to him and others in these industries, closing off more federal lands to development means the US must increasingly rely on overseas resources. "I don't think people recognize the trade-offs. Until there are economic consequences, I don't think they will," he says.
Still, the wilderness movement appears to be gathering strength, fueled also by a belief that the Clinton administration is friendly to the idea and by studies that show about 80 percent of Westerners favor wilderness protection.
IN Colorado, Representative DeGette is eyeing 1.4 million acres of federal land - mostly redrock canyons, sagebrush mesas, and stream-side parcels. Existing wilderness in the state is mostly high-elevation tracts of national forest land; her plan would for the first time set aside land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Throughout the West, BLM lands remain an elusive prize for environmentalists, who have long argued that some of this acreage should be wilderness.
Currently, Washington, Idaho, and Arizona each have about 4 million acres of wilderness. With passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, California added almost 6.4 million wilderness acres, for a total of 13.9 million acres - a full 14 percent of the state's total acreage. In Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico, however, wilderness areas account for less than 2 percent of each state's land base.
In Colorado, wilderness areas represent about 5 percent of the state.
While existing grazing, mining, drilling, and water rights would be honored under the DeGette proposal, that does not alleviate many concerns. In fact, the West's traditional industries see little need for more land to be declared "wilderness."
Federal lands can be managed responsibly for future generations without establishing new wilderness areas, says Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association. "Just because land is not designated as wilderness, it doesn't mean it's going to be ravaged."
"When you see a proposal as sweeping as this one, it's troublesome," he adds. "This is not going to get a lot of support from the communities impacted by it."
Others see the dispute over public lands in a different light. "The major issue ... is that rural Westerners believe they own the federal lands,... but they're owned as much by people in Hawaii as by people in Utah," says Mr. Little. "What's really going on in rural America - especially in the West - is that the economic system has passed them by, so they think the land represents their salvation."