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In Utah, a public-land fight on an epic scale

Drilling, recreation, and other uses compete in a battle echoing over millions of acres in the West.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2003


Circling the redrock desert of southern Utah in a small Cessna, Tim Martin and Kevin Walker represent the history and the future of this starkly beautiful land. Mr. Martin's great-grandfather came out from Iowa in 1881, ranching 280 acres in Mary Jane Canyon just west of the La Sal Mountains. Martin still ranches 160 acres with his brothers, but he spends more of his time now piloting tourists over the Canyonlands and Arches national parks.

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He sees no problem with more oil wells around here. "Parking areas and camp sites are just as scabby looking as the drill sites," Martin says. What really irritates him, though, is not being allowed to take his passengers down low when flying over national parks. Low, buzzing aircraft are dangerous and noisy, officials say.

Mr. Walker is a mathematician with degrees from Princeton and U.C., Berkeley, who moved here from California several years ago. Dr. Walker keeps his hand in as a math researcher, but his passion and main activity as a Sierra Club representative is saving Utah's desert from further development.

Citing federal government estimates, he says the oil to be recovered here would amount to what Americans use in three weeks (three months for natural gas). What the conflict comes down to, says Walker, is "world-class scenery in conflict with, at best, very insignificant oil and gas deposits."

The philosophical differences between Martin and Walker - argued vigorously but politely before taking off on a recent early-morning flight - is a microcosm of a political debate that could affect many millions of acres across the American West.

Much of the area around Moab is protected as national parks - Arches and Canyonlands. It's the much larger areas of federal land around them that lies at the heart of a controversy that extends throughout the West. It's already rattling around Congress, and it soon could reach the United States Supreme Court.

The heart of the matter - as it's always been with publicly owned lands - is the balance between preservation and development. That was easier to determine when Teddy Roosevelt launched the first major expansion of the national park and refuge system at a time when the population was less than half of its current number and motor vehicles were not ubiquitous.

Today, the Bush administration wants to expand energy development on federal lands - some of it nearby national parks. It wants to limit the creation of new wilderness areas. And it wants to give states and counties more control in such areas. In all, it's probably the most important political activity in this regard since the Reagan years.

While similar disputes are going on throughout the West, the fight in Utah is considered the most important, both because of the uniqueness and extent of the wilderness area and the substantial opportunities for recreation and energy development.

In many ways, this fight is the new "sagebrush rebellion" - a reaction to the policies of former President Bill Clinton and his conservationist Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. This, plus the phenomenal growth in recreation - especially motorized recreation, which is starting to have more impact on the land than traditional industries like mining and ranching.

With its spires, arches, balanced rocks, and jutting fins, Utah's redrock desert looks - from the air, at least - like rumpled elephant hide with prehistoric stegosauruses lumbering about. Depending on the weather and the angle of the sun, the earth moves through countless shades of red and brown. Down on the ground, saltbush, Pinyon pine, Utah juniper, and Indian rice grass tell of aridity and blast-furnace heat. What look like black, stony lumps on the desert floor really are "cryptobiotic crust," a fragile microbial world of bacteria, mosses, lichen, fungi, and algae.

The hand of man is here, too: Anasazi petroglyphs etched into flat rock by a civilization that disappeared 800 years ago. Seismic lines bulldozed through the desert where geologists hunted oil and gas. Lonely oil pumps - "nodding donkeys" clank up and down, creating eerie night torches as they flare off their extraneous gas. Hundreds of miles of jeep trails. Mountainous piles of tailings from old uranium mines, some of them toxic Superfund sites. Potash drying ponds, cool green and azure against the hot desert red.

Politically, as Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams puts it, "This territory is not neutral."