What’s the Wilderness For? : The question lies at the heart of the debate over vast federal tracts in southern Utah

At the center of the noisy, nasty debate over the future of 22 million acres in Utah is the very meaning of wilderness.

The naturalist Edward O. Wilson wrote that wilderness is “all the land and communities of plants and animals still unsullied by human occupation. . . . Wilderness settles peace on the soul because it needs no help; it is beyond human contrivance.” Is this the proper definition? Or is wilderness better described as tracts of vacant land whose value is measured by the coal, oil or timber that can be removed and sold?

These competing visions lie at the heart of congressional battles this year over the Northwest forests, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the nation’s most important national parks and now the disposition of federal land in southern Utah.

The tracts at issue are wild, open and breathtakingly spectacular. They include most of the red rock canyon country of southern Utah, the sites of ancient ruins and vistas that can stretch more than 100 miles.


The 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act charged the federal government with preserving 270 million acres of federal land across the country, 22 million acres of it in southern Utah. The bill now before the House would restrict that wilderness designation to just 1.8 million acres of federal land in Utah, lifting restrictions on 20.2 million acres and directing the Bureau of Land Management to administer that larger tract with the needs of miners, ranchers, timber companies and other users in mind.

Who backs this bill? Primarily Utah’s four-member congressional delegation and, apparently, Andalex Resources, a large Dutch-owned firm that is seeking to develop coal mining in this largely roadless area, plus other resource extraction companies and utilities.

And who opposes the bill? Independent polls show that Utah residents want more wilderness protected. A survey reported in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News found that Utahans solidly favored a competing bill, also before Congress, that would reserve 5.7 million acres as wilderness, rather than the 1.8 million specified in the present legislation.

Most Utahans both value wilderness and understand its monetary value. The state’s earnings from tourism have increased 62% in the last 15 years, while the mining industry has declined in terms of jobs and earnings.

Let’s hope this debate over Utah’s wilderness will not become another sorry example of special interests prevailing over the clear will of the people.