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.
In Nevada, where the bureau's 49 million acres equal about 70% of the state, federal agents are assessing the land now, but miners are not optimistic about cuts in the 1.8-million-acre wilderness recommendation.
Small Towns Threatened
"The mining industry now provides the economic base for more than half of Nevada's 17 counties," Bob Warren, executive director of the Nevada Mining Assn., said. "If we're unable to go out into areas with high or moderate mineral potential . . . these small towns that depend on mining will become sickly, fighting over the bones of a dying economy."
Environmentalists argue that mining has gone belly up across the West without help from wilderness areas, and cattle ranching has become less and less profitable, but that scenery and solitude--and the people who come to enjoy them--grow more valuable every year.
"Tourism is the biggest industry in the state of Utah," said Clive Kincaid, former Bureau of Land Management wilderness coordinator in Phoenix, and now executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
"Four million people come to Utah every year. I've seen people from every corner of the world who sit there wide-eyed and say they never knew there was anything like this anywhere."
About 400 miles north, Idaho ranchers fret about possible wilderness designations in Owyhee County, 5 million acres of sagebrush and prairie grass. It is the least populated area of a sparsely populated state: Its inhabitants are mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and domestic cattle.
"Out there, it's a classic confrontation between environmentalists and cattlemen," said Larry Woodard, Bureau of Land Management director in Idaho. "The cattlemen are saying, 'We don't want any wilderness designation in Owyhee County.' The environmentalists are saying the (bureau's) original wilderness inventory . . . drew the lines too narrow to begin with."
Conservationists level that criticism against the bureau across the West, although Utah is singled out as a particularly blatant example.
Debbie Sease, the Sierra Club's specialist on Bureau of Land Management wilderness designations, recalled a tour of wilderness study areas arranged by a former bureau director in Utah in the 1970s.
"As we flew along the boundary, (they said) the land on the right was included but the land on the left was excluded. There was no discernible difference," she said.
"We'd stop at area after area, and I'd ask the director: 'Why was this dropped?' And he'd say: 'Because there's not an outstanding opportunity for solitude.'
"I said: 'But, if the plane left, we'd be alone with miles and miles of nothing but solitude!' And he replied: 'Certainly, there's solitude, but it's not outstanding solitude.' "
Process Called Flawed
Dave Foreman, founder of the radical environmental group Earth First! and a former Wilderness Society lobbyist in Washington, believes the inventory process in Utah and elsewhere was flawed from the outset.
"But we, as conservationists, have to take a good deal of the blame because we were not willing to make it a public issue," Foreman said. "Because the (Jimmy) Carter Administration got away with it, it made it even more difficult when the Reagan Administration got in. It's hard to apply political pressure because the history is there."
Reed, the Bureau of Land Management spokesman in Utah, acknowledged that the agency was making subjective judgments about wilderness, "but we're trying to back them up."
One person's spectacular wild land might be another's scrubby wasteland, particularly in the high deserts of Idaho, Nevada and eastern Oregon.
Some Think Desert Is Ugly
"To a certain segment of the public, the word 'wilderness' conjures up the High Sierra, the Cascades, the high forested alpine areas," said Harmon, the Nevada wilderness coordinator for the bureau. "The law doesn't discriminate against one type of ecosystem over others. You just have this problem of getting through to people who think desert is ugly."
Another problem is getting through to Westerners who resent federal control of land they have worked with all their lives.
The spirit of the Sagebrush Rebellion, born in 1979, when the Nevada Legislature passed a bill claiming all unappropriated public lands in that state, lives on today. The rebels argued that Nevada had been granted statehood on unequal footing with other states because of vast federal land ownership--about 87% of the state. Federal ownership averages 3% in states east of the Mississippi.
In the last session, the Utah Legislature passed a bill opposing any further wilderness designation in the state.
Issue of 'Colonialism'
"I see no reason in fairness or equity for the . . . West to be mostly owned by the federal government while the other states are not," said Black, the San Juan County, Utah, commissioner. "I believe the federal government has no business owning land or land resources for proprietary purposes. Colonialism has been ended in virtually the entire world except for the Western United States."
Environmentalists argue just as vehemently that public lands belong to everyone and need to be preserved for all to enjoy.
"Because they live in their towns and they've been using this land so long--myself with them--we feel very akin to it, that it is ours," said Ken Sleight, a wilderness guide who runs a ranch retreat outside Moab.
"But, rightly, it is not ours completely. We own part of it, just like everyone else in the United States."