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Editorial: No end in sight in Utah wilderness battle

Utah’s BLM suit is more posturing.

First Published Jun 10 2014 04:51 pm • Last Updated Jun 10 2014 05:11 pm

"I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel."

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Soon to be President Ronald Reagan said that in a campaign speech in Salt Lake City in 1980. He was rallying the local-control folks on his way to a virtual sweep of the public lands-heavy Western states.

But four years later, Reagan was signing the Utah Wilderness Act of 1984, a bill sponsored by Utah Republican Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch to set aside 750,000 acres of national forest land in Utah as wilderness in a compromise that also freed other forest lands for development. (The bill did not address wilderness on BLM lands, which are still in dispute.) As president, Reagan never made any significant attempt to return lands to the states as sagebrush rebels wanted, but he did sign compromise wilderness acts for other states besides Utah.

The separation between rhetoric and reality has been a hallmark of the half-century of wrangling over BLM wilderness lands in Utah. On one side are environmentalists raising money on both coasts by telling people the bulldozers and drill rigs are ready to start ripping through America’s treasures. On the other side are the industry-funded lobbyists and PR machines that insist the feds have locked up America’s prosperity. Both sides are overselling.

Given this context, it’s difficult to take seriously either side in the state of Utah’s expensive lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over lands that have "wilderness characteristics."

Say state officials: The feds are illegally closing off leasing and road-building in areas that aren’t wilderness.

Actually, state officials, the feds haven’t closed off anything. They’re giving these areas more protection because they have the potential of becoming wilderness. In the meantime, oil and gas leasing on BLM lands has increased significantly, pumping dollars into those local economies.

Say environmentalists: If the state wins, BLM will be forced to open up pristine lands to drilling.

Actually, environmentalists, if the state wins its lawsuit, the BLM would have to follow a leasing process on these lands similar to what it does on other lands. By itself it doesn’t force these areas to be opened up to drilling.

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Utah is neither on the precipice of bulldozing its last wild place nor running off any hope of a sustainable rural economy. But if we genuinely want to settle the question of which parts of Utah should be left alone, we won’t do it in the courts. To get this done, we’ll need to act like Reagan, and not talk like him.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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