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These women literally ache for the wilderness : Utah’s Great Old Broads takes part in monthlong hike to keep these untamed, undeveloped areas.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Damn, there goes my last fingernail,” muttered Frandee Johnson as she scrambled up an exposed rock face on Canaan Mountain.

Johnson, a participant in a monthlong hike all over the state, grinned as she hoisted herself over the last pitch. The gray-haired 57-year-old may not look like your average wilderness buff. But then again, that’s her point.

Scrambling and hiking with her on this day were 13 other Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

In total, about 40 women took part in the 150-mile “broadwalk” through rugged canyon country proposed for federal wilderness designation by environmentalists. Their point: To prove wrong opponents of further wilderness designation who argue, among other things, that roadless areas discriminate against the old and infirm.

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“As older women, we’re the lowest rung on the ladder,” said Johnson, an expectant grandmother and former teacher from Colorado. “If we can get in here, anyone can. You don’t have to be a young man to enjoy the wilderness.”

Huffing and puffing, the women exulted in the view from the 7,000-foot mountain in the southwest corner of Utah. Salmon-colored sandstone gave way to distant purple spires. Juniper and ponderosa trees dotted the hillside, and stop-sign-red maples in their October regalia quavered below them. Not a house or power line or road was in sight.

It’s enough to momentarily quell the din of politics. Two thousand miles away in Washington, a fierce fight rages over how these lands will be protected.

Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) has proposed a bill, endorsed by environmentalists, that would protect 5.7 million acres in Utah under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Utah’s congressional delegation has introduced competing legislation in the House and Senate designating 1.8 million acres, and allowing unprecedented development--such as the construction of pipelines, reservoirs and radio antennas--within the new wilderness boundaries. Those bills also stipulate that no additional land in Utah may be considered for wilderness designation in the future.

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“We consider those bills un-wilderness bills,” said Great Old Broads President Susan Tixier, who encourages the group’s 1,000 members to write letters, present testimony and stage granny protests.

“This is one of the most important wilderness battles of the decade,” she said. “We have to show Congress that we’re willing to badger them, to act like annoying mothers-in-law, until they listen. We don’t feel like being polite or politically correct. There’s something about old women that’s indomitable.”

Tixier founded the group five years ago to draw attention to the nation’s fragile landscapes and to combine humor with passion as a tactic for saving them. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re going to burn out,” said the 53-year-old attorney. “Besides, it’s more fun this way.”

Noted Cecilia Hurwich, a spry 75-year-old: “Political activism is good for us. It keeps us young.”

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A psychologist from Berkeley, Hurwich is herself a force of nature. In her 50s, she climbed 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro and trekked to the Mt. Everest base camp. “Preserving the wilderness is, after all, self-preservation,” she said.

But not every grandmother in Utah supports wilderness.

Rivaling the Great Old Broads in charisma and conviction is Louise Liston. An elected commissioner in Garfield County north of Canaan Mountain, she says that wilderness locks up land and hampers economic development. “I guess you could call me a Great Old Broad for wise use,” said the 63-year-old Liston, referring to the ideological tag favored by proponents of increased industrialization and reduced federal oversight on public lands.

The Mormon rancher and grandmother of 13 has achieved notoriety for coining the oft- repeated phrase: “Backpackers come here with one pair of shorts and one $20 bill, and leave without changing either.”

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But Springdale Mayor Philip Bimstein disputes that characterization. His town, located at the south entrance of Zion National Park and near several proposed wilderness areas, thrives on tourist dollars. Speaking to a gathering of Great Old Broads after their mountain climb, he said: “We have our own phrase here. It’s ‘Springdale supports wilderness because wilderness supports Springdale.’ ”

While such traditional industries as grazing and mining still are significant, Utah’s once-rural economy is changing.

A study by the state Office of Planning and Budget found that 15 million visitors to Utah spent $3.35 billion last year. Tourism generated 69,000 jobs and $247 million in direct tax impact to state and local governments, and its contribution to the state’s gross domestic product exceeded that of agriculture and mining combined.

One recent tourist, Linda Liscom, 57, will return home from four weeks of broadwalking wearing a support bandage around each knee. “People think you have to be in great shape to be a Great Old Broad,” said Liscom, who lives on a farm in Northern California. “Not so. We all have aches and pains. But I’ve loved every minute of it.”

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