Editorial: Wilderness designation in southern Utah is now a political bargaining chip

Several weeks ago, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and nouveau sagebrush rebel, made public an internal Interior Department draft concerning Western places that "may be good candidates for National Monument designation under the Antiquities Act."

Bishop was furious, as were many rural Western lawmakers, for in that document they heard echoes of President Bill Clinton's "War on the West," when he used his executive powers to establish new national monuments, placing big chunks of public lands off-limits to gas drilling, off-road vehicles, grazing, coal mining and all kinds of other God-given rights.

On the new list was Cedar Mesa, a big swath of canyon-carved piñon and juniper country in southeastern Utah's San Juan County. It was hardly surprising when the San Juan Record reported that the county commissioners -- who have a long tradition of warring with the feds -- were up in arms. More remarkable was one of their reasons: They didn't want any national monument designation to screw up their own land bill, which would  include new wilderness, believe it or not, right there in San Juan County.

It was enough to give wilderness-lovers hope: If San Juan County could utter the W-word, anyone could. Add to that no less than a half-dozen wilderness proposals that have been introduced or are on their way to Congress, and it seems that greens could make up for some of the time lost during the Bush years, when only about 2 million acres of wilderness were designated, compared to the 9.1 million acres protected under Clinton.

Still, that hope is tempered by some new and harsh realities. These days, if you want to protect an area as wilderness, you'd better be prepared to come to the table and deal with an increasing number of stakeholders, some of whom cynically see wilderness as nothing more than a bargaining chip. And, sadly, there's less land available to fight over. Gone are the days of grand, sweeping wilderness designations.

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