SALT LAKE CITY — For Randy Johnson, the coming of April is always interlaced with memories of the San Rafael Swell.
When he was a boy, townsfolk from tiny Castle Dale, Utah, would venture into the scarred ocher canyons once a year at Easter for a day of solitude.
"We called it Easterin'," says Mr. Johnson, now a county commissioner in Utah's Emery County. "It seems like that was the only time you'd see anyone down there, and we'd hike and climb and follow the old outlaw routes. It was part of my roots."
These days, the canyon is no longer the solitary refuge Johnson remembers, and he now hikes the halls of Congress as easily as he once did the slot canyons of San Rafael. Johnson is leading a debate over the future of Utah's public land that could resonate throughout the West.
He wants Congress to protect the swell from mining and other commercial operations - while leaving it open to recreational motorists on certain roads.
At a time when the White House is designating more land as "wilderness," keeping it pristine, this move is something of a rebuke: Many here want room for people amid the red sands and soaring buttes. It is also an attempt at compromise, one that, if successful, could be replicated in open spaces across America.
"This is a way of getting around wilderness, because wilderness has become a problem, not a solution," Johnson says.
The swell has been the subject of serious congressional consideration. Rep. Chris Cannon (R) of Utah introduced the San Rafael Western Legacy and National Conservation Act this year. He has said he hopes the act will provide a "model for resolving other federal land-management issues across Utah and other Western states by striking the necessary balance between wilderness, recreation, and preservation."
Emery County, which contains the San Rafael Swell's 600,000 acres of deserts and cliffs, is rich in history as well as beauty, which supporters say makes it an ideal place to try to balance the demands of both man and nature.
The ancient Anasazi and Fremont Indians left a heritage of petroglyphs in the rock. Much later, outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid roamed the canyons and jumped the rivers. More than 50 years ago, the US government came to mine the area for its uranium.
Today, the region is a prime destination point for recreational vehicles. Cannon wants to make sure they have a place in the San Rafael Swell's future.
The San Rafael bill is riding with the good fortune of political timing. President Clinton's decision in January to create the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona has angered Western lawmakers. The land is now off-limits to virtually any sort of commercial use.
"The members [of Congress] are very concerned about wholesale designation, and about such restricted designations that don't take into account regional issues," says Lisa Atkins, spokeswoman for Rep. Bob Stump (R) of Arizona. "The reason they are so interested [in the San Rafael act] is that it provides far more flexibility in ... the ability to protect those resources and still maintain multiple-use designation."
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has also given his blessing to the San Rafael plan, which he reportedly sees as immediate - if imperfect - protection for the land. He also says he hopes a little protection will increase the appetite for more.
But many environmentalists oppose the measure. "The thing that is distressing is that the Department of Interior has fallen asleep at the wheel," says Larry Young, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance here. He and others don't think the measure goes far enough, and say it has the potential to muddle the meaning of conservation.
Environmentalists want the area declared a wilderness, automatically restricting certain uses for recreation or commerce. National conservation areas, on the other hand, must specifically write in restrictions on the land.
This hard line, however, does not ingratiate them to many Westerners. "Although environmentalists are well-meaning, they are somewhat insensitive to the plight of average people," says Sheldon Kamieniecki, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "If you take a position which is noncompromising, either you have it your way or it doesn't get done."
And in Emery County, says Johnson, all people and traditions have to be taken into account. "We have a rich human and natural heritage," he notes. "You can't discount all those things of another generation - the uranium, the outlaws, the early settlers, and the Indians. That's to say, 'Let's just shove it off and keep it beautiful and ignore the human factor.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society