Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service

Project Prologue

Wild Lands Future Project

The related questions of whether and how much BLM land should be set aside as wilderness in Utah have undergone extensive examination throughout Utah’s History since the early 80’s. The issue has received untold work, debate and controversy. Only Congress, however, can legislatively designate a wilderness area but obviously Utah’s elected officials and citizenry have a great deal to say about the issue.

In 1991 the BLM submitted a report to Congress that recommended a final Utah wilderness designation of 1.9 million acres that met every wilderness classification requirement with little or no conflict. In January 1995, the state’s elected officials began soliciting public input on a final wilderness bill.

Fully appreciating the issue’s volatility, state and federal officials sought to provide the citizenry ample opportunity for comment.

The 1995 wilderness proposal was a culmination of many years of work, millions of dollars, and countless man hours invested in trying to reach a compromise on the wilderness issue. The wilderness proposal came about several years after the Bureau of Land Management wilderness area inventory. In 1991 the BLM found that 3,258,250 acres of land met the minimum criteria for Wilderness Study Area designation and further recommended that 1,958,339 acres of that be designated as Wilderness.

From the start of the wilderness designation process there were deeply conflicting ideas and groups that all had a stake in the outcome of the wilderness bill. Local counties and residents had strong reservations against the proposed wilderness while environmental groups and urban residents generally strongly favored the wilderness designation. There were substantial differences in Utah and nationally as to what the public opinion really was. Several public opinion polls were conducted both by environmental groups and local counties and interests. The results of the polls consistently showed what was beneficial to them, allowing each group to claim they had the public support.

The history of wilderness in Utah shows that it is a very divisive issue with no simple resolution. During the 1995 Wilderness proposal the Governors office took on the role of a mediator, trying to build consensus among the competing parties. The major concerns that were put forward by both parties dealt with acreage numbers, right-of-ways, buffer zones, release language, economic development, and school trust lands. In general local counties favored as little wilderness as possible while environmental groups stood firmly behind their proposal of 5.7 million acres. One of the most contested issues was determining who controlled roads and right-of-ways within the proposed wilderness areas. While there were few existing right-of-ways, concern from local officials was about using them for future economic development that might be hindered by wilderness designation in their respective counties. Local officials also had reservations about creating buffer zones surrounding the wilderness, areas that were also under protection, though not as strict of guidelines as those governing the wilderness areas. Release language was another hot issue concerning wilderness. The difficulty facing authors of the bill was trying to negotiate between hard release, and soft release language concerning lands surrounding the wilderness areas. The final major controversy surrounding the designation of wilderness was the School Trust Lands. The Trust lands are managed to bring the most benefit to Utah’s public schools. These lands are arranged in a checkerboard pattern across the state, including inside wilderness areas. The solution that was sought to end the debate over the Trust lands was to create a land swap for other federal land throughout the state.

In an effort to make the process fair and open, numerous public meetings and hearings were held throughout the state. Approximately forty public hearings were held throughout Utah, including five regional public hearings and two additional meetings in Salt Lake City and Provo. Moreover, the governor’s office received over 3,030 written responses to the wilderness issue. From the public testimony of 551 people, 457 individuals indicated support for wilderness designation whereas 94 were in opposition. Roughly 43 percent supported 5.7 million acres of wilderness proposed by H.R. 1500, 3 percent supported Representative Orton’s proposal of approximately 1.2 million acres, 3 percent supported the Utah Wilderness Associations proposal of roughly 3 million acres, 4 percent supported rural county recommendations of little more than 1 million acres, and 18 percent, though supporting wilderness, did not designate a specific proposal or recommend a number of acres to be designated. Approximately 29 percent of the comments received favored no wilderness designation.

The tone that each meeting took seemed to depend on the location it was held. There was strong support for the wilderness designation in meetings held in urban areas, while the wilderness was strongly opposed in many meetings held in rural areas.

Many participants in the project were hopeful that the legislation would pass because of the level of compromise incorporated into it. The proposed legislation would encompass 1.8 million acres into the Wilderness system, as well as allow the state to control fish and game management in the wilderness areas and maintain control of water rights for the wilderness area. While the proposed legislation did not fully satisfy either extreme, it was the best compromise that had been made after 17 years of planning and negotiations.

The bill was put before the 104th Congress and was met with heavy resistance from environmental groups. While the bill ultimately ended up failing, many of the places proposed to be designated as wilderness areas have remained wilderness study areas under similar protection.

In short, public comment and opinion polls indicated that there was great divisiveness over how much wilderness should be designated in Utah. Most rural citizens, who lived where these lands are located, strongly opposed any federal regulation that might limit local access to and economic development of BLM lands. Yet many citizens in the state’s urban areas supported the federal designation of 5.7 million acres of BLM wilderness. By revealing these divisions, the public process had effectively blocked resolution of the wilderness debate.

The inability to reach consensus over the wilderness issue stems from differing convictions about the land and from the lack of a meaningful, conciliatory dialogue between the debate’s participants. Polarization and mistrust have intensified on Utah’s plateau as misconceptions spread concerning permissible uses in and around designated wilderness areas. Many of Utah’s plateau residents remained firmly convinced that designated wilderness would result in substantial job losses in their communities, particularly in those jobs tied to extractive industries. Moreover, these same people often assumed that once public lands had been designated as wilderness, all the economic benefits they offered would be forever lost.

On the other side of the wilderness debate are those who seem to have limited empathy for the concerns of rural Utahns. Most people who favored 5.7 million acres of wilderness do not live in communities surrounding proposed wilderness areas and were not in danger of suffering any direct economic consequences from expanded wilderness. The notion of protecting the wild and scenic lands they use for recreation and escape often took precedence over the economic considerations of Utah’s rural citizenry.

Additional Resources

WILDS STATUS MAY THWART NUCLEAR DUMP, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19990209.pdfTOO MUCH WILDERNESS DESIGNATION COULD HURT RURAL UTAH’S ECONOMY, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19950815b.pdfWhite House, Leavitt Strike a Lands Deal May Be Breakthrough in Raging Wilds Battle, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19990527a.pdf

Lands Bill: Battle Brews, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19991008.pdf

Wilds Bill Makes Headway, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19991020.pdf

Wild Bill Cheered, Jeered, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW20020512b.pdf

Spectacular Photos Belie Lively Discourse In Wilds Debate, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19980723.pdf

WHITE HOUSE, LEAVITT STRIKE A LANDS DEAL MAY BE BREAKTHROUGH IN RAGING WILDS BATTLE, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19990527a.pdf

GRAND WILDS AGENDA IN WEST THE DREAM: 210 MILLION ACRES OF PROTECTED LAND, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19991107.pdf

Utah Wilderness Issues: West Desert: Wilds Advocates Say Leavitt-Babbitt Deal Isn’t Preserving Enough Acreage, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/wilderness09.pdf

The Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006: Evaluating a New Paradigm in Legislated Land Exchanges, https://epubs.utah.edu/index.php/jlrel/article/view/105/0

LEAVITT RETOOLS LAND SWAP AFTER DEAL IS STYMIED BY ENVIRONMENTAL LOBBYISTS, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW20000505.pdf

Future of the Book Cliffs is Threatened By Texan’s Control of Grazing Rights, https://www.proquest.com/docview/288781245

Enlibra Will Mean Business as Usual in Terms of The Environment, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19990110.pdf

Enlibra-Balance and Stewardship, https://spcoll.li.suu.edu/eadfiles/Xe1kcH8BnM5_0W5sJ69V/ms122NW19981129.pdf

Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service