Anyone who's seen the red-rock country of southern Utah knows that words, and even photos, can barely do it justice. There's a stillness and beauty, a timeless grace and permanence to the canyons and plateaus, the rivers and pools, that is exalting, humbling, and deeply restorative.
Most know it through national parks - Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands. But there is much more. And now, two classic battles are being played out over wilderness protection in Utah: East versus West, and "old" West versus "new" West.
Since 1976, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been reviewing the 270 million acres it oversees in the West to determine which areas should be designated wilderness and therefore closed off to roads and development.
It's been a long, expensive process, with terrific political fights sometimes resulting. Such as the one over the California Desert Protection Act, which finally passed last year but may be weakened by the more-conservative Congress. Or the Montana wilderness debate, which has gone on for 17 years.
The BLM recommends that 1.9 million acres of the 23 million acres the agency administers in Utah be set aside as wilderness - "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," as the Wilderness Act of 1964 states. The rest would be open to ranching, mining, utility corridors, and other development.
There are two competing legislative proposals regarding Utah wilderness, which will be discussed in a congressional hearing in Washington later this week.
One, proposed by the state's congressional delegation and backed by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), designates 1.8 million acres as wilderness. Added to the approximately 800,000 acres now under wilderness protection, this would cover just under 5 percent of the state. Another measure, put forth by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) of New York and backed by environmentalists and 68 other lawmakers (none from Utah and mostly Democrats from eastern states or California), proposes more than three times as much - 5.7 million acres - as wilderness.
Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah thinks it's pretty presumptuous of outsiders to tell people in his state they should lock up potentially productive land. "I'm sure the folks in New York who've never been here before probably know more than all us hicks from Utah," he said over the phone last week.
This isn't the first time a New Yorker has led the fight to preserve Western wild lands. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of the "silk-stocking" 14th District of Manhattan is lead sponsor of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act covering 16 million acres in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. (This led some politicians in the region to suggest that wolves should be reintroduced in Central Park.)
Thus, the long-standing debate between those who visit the Western wilderness to recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries (or feel a responsibility to protect federal land that belongs to all Americans) and those with equally legitimate concerns about being pushed out by vacationers.
But it's not as simple as that. Like much of the West, Utah (with the country's fourth-highest population growth rate) is changing as newcomers move in. A recent poll shows 36 percent favoring the 5.7 million-acre proposal, 26 percent backing the Utah delegation's bill, and 22 percent wanting something less than that. Representative Hinchey's bill, in fact, was originally proposed by a now-retired Utah congressman, Wayne Owens. More than politics is going on here, and it concerns more than specific pieces of spectacular landscape.
Utah native Terry Tempest Williams, a poet and activist, put the situation accurately when she said, "I truly believe we are engaged in a philosophical civil dispute."