MONTICELLO, Utah — In the heart of the still-wild West, sagebrush rebels and backcountry preservationists are faced off like gunslingers in an old-time showdown.
At stake are 174 million acres of public lands held by the Bureau of Land Management in 11 Western states, land the federal government could not give away 50 years ago.
Today, those miles of blood-red canyon rifts, sand dunes and wild rivers, high deserts of bristlecone and sagebrush, bighorn and bison, elk and eagle, untapped reserves of oil, ore, gas and gold are the stuff passionate opinions and contemporary Western confrontations are made of.
On one side are environmentalists and conservationists, who call the lands a national treasure offering scenery and solitude; on the other are miners, ranchers and small-town citizens who rely on public lands for economic survival and resent federal control of land they consider theirs.
Agency in the Middle
In the line of fire is the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Interior Department agency responsible for recommending which of the government's vast holdings should be part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. To qualify as wilderness, an area must be "untrammeled by man, (a place) where man himself is a visitor," and must offer "outstanding opportunities" for solitude or recreation.
Trying to apply that definition has left the Bureau of Land Management stuck between a lot of spectacular rocks and scenic hard places, Utah spokesman Jack Reed said.
"We're criticized no matter which way we go," he said. "Some of these issues are not black and white. What is solitude? To you it might be different than it is to me."
"It's an emotional issue," agreed Dave Harmon, wilderness coordinator for the bureau in Nevada. "You find few people who don't have an opinion."
Passage of the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act shifted the Bureau of Land Management's traditional mandate from land disposal to land maintenance. The agency was directed to examine its public lands, which cover an area the size of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Illinois combined, and recommend to Congress by 1991 which lands should have wilderness protection.
Even though the ultimate decision lies with Congress and is four years away, zealots are bearing down on the bureau today, nowhere more intensely than in Utah, where it manages 22 million acres of public land, more than 40% of the state.
The agency chose 3.3 million acres for wilderness consideration, then recommended setting aside about 1.9 million acres. The outcry from conservationists and developers alike forced the agency to extend the public comment period, and it is now studying more than 4,000 responses.
Environmentalists say most respondents favor setting aside 5.1 million acres of wilderness, a proposal backed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a loose coalition of 19 groups. A more moderate proposal asks for 3.2 million acres, a more radical one for 16 million.
Another radical proposal, frequently heard in the rural towns near Utah's spectacular national parks, opts for no wilderness at all.
"We see this as something that threatens our capability to continue living here," said Robert Anderson, a Monticello attorney who led a San Juan County citizens' task force on the wilderness issue. "Most of us live here because we like the environment. We like the wide open spaces . . . but we're very dependent on the activities that take place on public lands."
In San Juan County, which covers 5 million acres in Utah's southeastern corner, unemployment hovers around 10%, largely because of troubles in the agriculture and mining industries. It would be higher, County Commissioner Calvin Black said, except that people who lose their jobs often leave the area.
The other support beam in the county's economic structure is tourism: Each year, thousands visit nearby Canyonlands and Arches national parks. But related service jobs pay far less than miners' wages. Some people believe even tourism-related jobs are threatened by designating an area as wilderness, which bans roads and motorized vehicles within its boundaries.
"Our experience has been, too, that wilderness has a way of impacting land beyond its borders," Anderson said. "You have a spot of wilderness . . . and somebody wants to have some sort of development right next to it, and you run into a lot of opposition on the basis that activity outside . . . impacts what's inside."
Miners and cattle ranchers are the Bureau of Land Management's historical constituents, dating to the days of its predecessor, the General Land Office and Grazing Service. Existing cattle grazing is allowed to continue on designated wilderness areas. Mining is not.
But the bureau assesses mineral potential in given areas and, if the potential is judged high enough, it can knock the land out of wilderness consideration.