Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service

Project Prologue

West Desert Wilderness Bill

The early stages of what became the 1999 West Desert Wilderness Proposal began in 1996 when Secretary Babbitt ordered a “re-inventory” of the wilderness lands in question after the controversial 1995 Wilderness proposal. Much of the foundation for the bill had already been completed from the previous attempt in 1995 to create an acceptable wilderness bill to the citizens, local governments, and special interest groups in Utah. In July of 1996 work began on reassessing the lands in Utah with “wilderness characteristics”, and by September of 1996 field work had begun. In October of that year the State of Utah, the Utah State Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and the Utah Association of Counties filed suit challenging the Secretary’s authority to conduct a re-inventory. In November 1996 the federal district court issued a temporary restraining order, causing work on the re-inventory to be halted. In March 1998 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the previous ruling and on June 19, 1998 the injunction was lifted and work resumed.

Many of the same controversial issues that plagued the 1995 wilderness attempt also created problems for the 1999 wilderness legislation. However the main issue that was being addressed by the re-inventory was claims from both environmental groups and local governments that the BLM’s original inventory was a misrepresentation of how much land actually qualified as wilderness.  Environmental groups claimed that the BLM underreported the number of acres that qualified as wilderness, while local governments and OHV groups said that the BLM included land in their proposal that did not meet the requirements for wilderness designation. To make the inventory proceed quickly several things were changed from the previous lands inventory.

Only lands that were not already designated as Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) were reevaluated. The other noticeable departure from the usual procedure was that the public was not involved in the re-inventory. This created a considerable amount of controversy. Wilderness was again a very divisive issue in Utah. Urban residents generally favored large amounts of wilderness while rural residents generally favored as little wilderness as possible. Controversial issues included Right-of-ways, water rights, School Trust Lands, buffer zones, release language, and military over flight issues. The wilderness bill proceeded to Congress much more quickly than the 1995 effort, but was still met with great resistance on the floor of the Congress. While the bill eventually ended up failing, pieces of it did pass as separate bills. Part of the original bill was a land exchange swapping state lands inside WSAs for other federal land that was not included in either WSA or Wilderness designation.  This land exchange became a separate bill and was passed by the Congress late in 1999.

Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service