by Kyra Epstein
If Congress says, "Prove it or lose it," you'd better get moving - especially when millions of acres of weaving canyonland, towering redrock and archaeological treasures are at stake.
That's why 300 Utah volunteers worked weekends and vacations for two and a half years evaluating which Bureau of Land Management lands meet the strict criteria for designation as wilderness areas.
They found 8.5 million acres that qualify for protection - 5 million acres more than were deemed eligible in a 1970s survey by the BLM, and nearly 3 million acres more than the amount specified in proposed legislation supported by conservation groups, including the Sierra Club.
"The project proved that volunteers can, effectively and accurately, complete large-scale wilderness inventories when bureaucratic apathy, opposition or delaying tactics hinder the work," said Utah Chapter Public Lands Chair Wayne Hoskisson.
In the mid-1970s, Congress directed the BLM to study its roadless land for possible wilderness designation. The agency found 3.2 million acres in Utah and gave the lands interim designation as wilderness study areas. But Congress never gave the lands official wilderness area status.
In the 1980s, restless activists in the Utah Wilderness Coalition, of which the Sierra Club is a founding member, conducted their own wilderness inventory and documented 5.7 million acres of eligible public lands. That's the figure cited in H.R. 1500, the American Redrock Wilderness Act, introduced by former Utah Rep. Wayne Owens in 1989.
Attempts to pass H.R. 1500 and its Senate counterpart, S. 773, have been unsuccessful, though wilderness supporters enjoyed a small victory in 1996 when President Clinton designated 1.7 million acres of southern Utah canyonlands as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, affording them some protection.
But a setback came when a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah halted a new wilderness inventory project begun by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt three years ago.
"After years of waiting for a congressionally mandated study of Utah wilderness lands, citizens again took matters into their own hands," said Lawson LeGate, the Club's Southwest regional representative. LeGate, with organizers Greg Underwood and Mark Heileson, mobilized a network of volunteers through mailings, phone calls and newsletter articles to get the project under way.
"We were thorough and methodical, checking every public land area to see if it met the criteria Congress has been using since it passed the Wilderness Act of 1964," said veteran Sierra Club activist Jim Catlin, now of the Utah Wildlands Project.
Lands proposed for wilderness must not contain constructed or maintained roads, or other "significant human impacts" such as old mines and power lines. The coalition's new inventory, now being computerized, constitutes the most complete information on Utah wilderness, including more than 40,000 photographs of eligible sites.
Said Hoskisson, "We used such sound methods in our inventory that the evidence supporting our findings will survive the scrutiny of the opposition."
"Our next move will be to let our friends in Congress know what we've done in our reinventory and pursue adding the additional lands to H.R. 1500." The Sierra Club and its coalition partners plan to have the bill ready to present by next year.
To Take Action: Urge your congressional representatives and senators to co-sponsor America's Redrock Wilderness Act, H.R. 1500 and S. 773. Ask them now, since this year's congressional session is soon coming to a close.
Also, Club chapters and wilderness groups in California, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming and Maine are mounting their own campaigns using Utah's project as a template. If you're interested in wilderness inventories in your state, contact your chapter or field office for information.
For More Information: Contact Lawson LeGate at (801) 467-9294; lawson.legate
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