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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Utah: Weighing in on Wilderness

Air Date: Week of

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey both recently spoke with host Steve Curwood about their proposed legislation concerning the wild areas of Utah. The two lawmakers have two different visions for the same land.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Man: "Oh, Bessie, Brownie, Bill! Good bye!" Western music plays.)

CURWOOD: Ah, the American West: big, bold, and beautiful. And when Hollywood filmmaker John Ford directed his famous westerns, he headed for the gorgeous red rocks of Utah's southern counties. You can still see the land today in all its splendor, where John Ford made She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and perhaps his most famous film, Stagecoach.

(A scene from Stagecoach plays.)

HINCHEY: The landscape is absolutely unique. There is nothing like it anyplace in this country, and perhaps nowhere else in the world.

HATCH: We have everything from sand dunes to high Uinta in the mountains, with lakes and streams, and down to pure desert, beautiful rocks and cliffs and canyons. It's unbelievable.

CURWOOD: Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Representative Maurice Hinchey of New York both agree on the beauty of wild Utah. They're in conflict over how to protect it. We'll hear their views in this half hour along with others.

The Federal Government owns 22 million acres in southern Utah. Right now the Bureau of Land Management treats much of it as wilderness, but this temporary arrangement is coming under increasing pressure. Senator Hatch and others say the present deal locks up too much of the land. Beyond the boundaries of the present national parks and monuments, says the senator, another 2 million or so acres of Utah's wilderness should be preserved, but more than that isn't practical.

HATCH: Problem in this particular situation is that some of the pro-wilderness groups want low-lying sagebrush lands along the highways cutting off the long-time roads and access routes and so forth. And you know, those lands aren't to be designated wilderness, and that's where we get into some of the difficulties.

CURWOOD: Senator Hatch's Utah Wilderness Bill has drawn fire from a coalition of wilderness and environmental advocates, as well as the Clinton Administration. These critics say they prefer a measure sponsored by Congressman Hinchey.

HINCHEY: What we are seeking to do is to declare 5.7 million acres of that 22 million acres as wilderness, so that future generations will be able to enjoy the unprecedented beauty that exists in southern Utah.

CURWOOD: Opponents of your bill say that this additional land is low-lying sage brush, and much of it is in fact roaded and it's not really wilderness quality land. Is that true?

HINCHEY: No, that's not true. It is unique in its diversity, extraordinary in its brilliance and beauty, and a place that is utterly and totally deserving of protection.

CURWOOD: Present law allows for hiking, camping, and some grazing within Federal wilderness areas. But Senator Hatch's measure would also allow some roads, cars, and even some mineral, coal, and water development in wilderness areas under what he calls pre-existing rights.

HATCH: So yeah, we would allow some of that. But the fact is, what we don't want to do is cut off pre-existing rights that really should be protected. This is does not mean that we're going to permit a ripping off of the wilderness in areas where rights don't exist, and should not exist. It's just a reasonable approach to try and resolve some of the problems that exist.

HINCHEY: Well that may be what is in his mind, but it is not what is in the bill.

CURWOOD: Again, Representative Hinchey.

HINCHEY: The language of the bill certainly would allow various kinds of activities, construction of dams, roads, communication towers, things of that nature. Now obviously, those kinds of things are not consistent with the idea of wilderness as it's set forth in the '64 legislation or any other wilderness area currently existing in the country. And certainly I don't think not consistent with the idea of wilderness in the mind of citizens of the United States. When we think of wilderness we think of a place that is wild, that has not been subject to the activities of man.

CURWOOD: Then there's the rest of the 22 million acres, land not formally designated as wilderness under either measure. Mr. Hinchey's bill, in keeping with current law, allows the Federal Bureau of Land Management to choose what additional land might be treated as wilderness. But Senator Hatch objects. His bill would take this power out of the Agency's hands. Mr. Hatch says in a state where 70% of the land is Federally owned and carries restrictions on its use, it's important to make as much land as possible available for what he calls reasonable uses.

HATCH: We would like to release up the other lands so that people can use them. We're great believers in multiple use out in Utah, so people can drive their 4-wheel drive vehicles into some of these areas and see them where they would otherwise not be able to, people with disabilities will be able to see. Where young kids and older people will be able to enjoy and participate. It doesn't mean development. It doesn't mean destruction of the lands. It just means better multiple use of the land.

CURWOOD: But opponents say Senator Hatch's bill isn't so benign. They say for one thing, it would allow mining of a huge coalfield beneath the Kaiparwits Plateau, one of the largest unbroken wild areas left in the country. Most of it lies outside of Mr. Hatch's proposed wilderness boundaries. Congressman Hinchey.

HINCHEY: So that land, in effect, would be lost forever. The ability to protect it would be gone as a result of this so-called hard release language. Now that language is unique to this bill. So for that reason alone, it is a very bad idea.

CURWOOD: And according to some recent surveys and polls, the largest fraction of the public both inside and outside Utah thinks it's a bad idea, too. Senator Hatch says these surveys don't reflect the needs and views of those most directly affected.

HATCH: Every once in a while I think we ought to consider the needs of human beings, too, and especially those who live in the area. What are their needs for jobs? What are their needs for something as vital to them in the second driest state in the Union as water? I think we have to have some reason in these things, and we've got to balance the rights of human beings and the rights of the public as a whole in those areas, and even throughout the country.

CURWOOD: A House version of Senator Hatch's measure has passed committee. But with the election year now underway and a backlog of budget bills clogging Congress, it's not clear when the matter will come before the full House and Senate for debate. What does seem clear is that passions on this are high, and both sides feel that they are the keepers of the best of the Great American West.



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