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

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.

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.

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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."

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is negotiating with governors here and in other Western states to give county governments (typically bastions of antifederal feeling in the West) the right to have roads through federal land that had been under consideration for wilderness protection. The legal basis - and controversy - here is over a 19th-century law having to do with "rights of way."

The Civil War-era mining law states simply: "The right-of-way for the construction of highways across public lands not reserved for public purposes is hereby granted." Period. No definition of "construction." No definition of "highways."

Congress has been tussling over the issue, and lawmakers will take it up again after the summer break.

It's not that county commissioners around the West want to turn every old wagon trail and cow path - some of them barely visible today - into paved roads. It's just that they want to retain some control over a region where newcomers and visitors increasingly reflect values symbolized by backpacks and Lycra biking shorts rather than oil rigs and leather chaps.

The administration also wants to limit potential wilderness designations to those "wilderness study areas" reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Interior Department) before 1993 - in other words, prior to the Clinton/Babbitt years. One major reason here is the Bush administration's desire to speed up oil and gas drilling in the West. Last week, the administration named a new committee of officials from Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. Their mandate is to make it easier for oil and natural-gas companies to get permits to drill on federal land.

Environmentalists would rather see more officially designated wilderness - not only for its own sake, but also because it provides an ecological and visual buffer for national parks. "Wilderness is not something that's getting less attractive in America, it's getting more attractive," says environmental activist Dan Kent, who's been arrested for blocking a county-owned bulldozer near Canyonlands National Park.

Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, congressionally designated wilderness areas are places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man ... protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions...." Some 106 million acres (17 percent of federal lands) have been added to the national wilderness system, about half of that in Alaska.

Scientists as well as activists worry about the impact of more roads - whether they're for energy development, off-road recreation, or any other purpose - in relatively pristine areas. The Ecological Society of America, recently wrote to members of Congress that approving rights-of-way claims "has the potential to have a very broad negative impact on the nation's federal lands ... including National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, [and] designated Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas."

Among the impacts cited: water degradation, invasion of nonnative plant and animal species, habitat fragmentation, and human-caused fire.

Many county officials in more-rural parts of the West applaud Interior Secretary Norton's recent agreement with Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (R) limiting wilderness study areas. But the trend is not universally welcomed. "The result of compelling California to accept this settlement with Utah," California Secretary for Resources Mary Nichols wrote to Norton recently, "permanently denies wilderness protection to a range of cherished emblems of California's natural heritage - including Giant Sequoia groves and stands of ancient redwoods in the Headwaters Forest."

It's not as simple as environmentalists and their champions in Congress (typically lawmakers from back East) versus those who want to extract natural resources or open the land to more traffic.

Most off-road vehicle drivers are like Matt Baird who, with a group of buddies from Dallas, recently drove 20 hours to play with their Jeeps in southern Utah. "We leave as little impact as possible," he says. Still, his friend Cody Crider acknowledges, "young kids are giving everybody else a bad name" by tearing up the desert where off-roaders aren't supposed to go.

Oil-industry officials say modern means of drilling can greatly reduce the environmental impact. But, looking out over this unique landscape at motor vehicle tracks and scattered oil pumps, Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance asks: "Is this the highest, best value for this land?"

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