Where to Draw the Lines in the Soil

State, environmentalists spar over how much land should be 'wilderness'

COMPETING attitudes about Utah's future - growth vs. conservation - are symbolized most sharply in the debate over wilderness protection.

Utah's national parks - Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands - are the crown jewels of a landscape that is world class in its beauty, the equivalent of European cathedrals in their ability to draw awe-inspired visitors (and their wallets) from around the world.

But there are some 23 million acres of additional federal land that in many spots is equally spectacular and ecologically important. After years of study, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently recommended that 1.9 million acres of that be preserved 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 puts it.

The Utah congressional delegation and Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) favor a bill based on the BLM recommendation that designates 1.8 million acres as new wilderness, a proposal that leaves the remaining BLM land open to ranching, mining, organized recreation, and other activities that could lead to the building of new roads and other development.

Another proposal would set aside 5.7 million acres - three times as much land. This proposal is favored by about 70 lawmakers (mostly Democrats from outside the region) and environmental activists. Some of these activists, such as Kris Edwards and Diane Maggipinto of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, are recently transplanted from other states.

"I see new construction everywhere, and that drives me crazy," says Ms. Maggipinto, who moved to Salt Lake City from Vermont a year ago.

But there are plenty of relative old-timers in Utah who also are pushing for the bill that would set aside more land as wilderness, including well-known poet and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, who traces her family's Mormon roots back several generations. And according to at least one statewide opinion poll, nearly 40 percent here favor the proposal to protect the 5.7 million acres.

"Who owns these lands?" asks Mark Austin, who with his German-born wife, Katie, built and now manages the Boulder Mountain Lodge not far from Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

"Many of the local people feel that they have a vested interest in the lands," he says, referring to ranchers whose cattle grazing could be affected by expanding wilderness. "Myself, I feel that they belong to me also, as they do to every other American, since they're public lands."

Mr. Austin is in a unique position. He has been a builder and developer in southern Utah for 25 years, but he also considers himself an environmentalist. He has formed a local organization to encourage the production of marketable high-quality goods from nearby national forests while reducing overall tree cutting. And he's working to convince local ranchers that wilderness and traditional ranch culture can be compatible in the face of inevitable development and population growth.

"There's an incredible influx of people moving into rural Utah," Austin says. "People are sick and tired of the city. They want a more relaxed lifestyle, they want elbow room, and the message in that is a real strong need for open space."

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