In Utah, the New West Trumps the Old

Utah's conservative senators and congress-men thought they knew their constituents--ranchers, miners--until they stepped into a public hearing at the University of Utah last April. It was packed. Speaker after speaker told lawmakers the same thing: we're computer programmers and waiters and teachers; we don't mine or graze, and we want Utah's canyonlands and ranges to remain pristine. In conservative St. George, residents also spoke three to one in favor of setting aside huge tracts as federally protected wilderness, off-limits to mining, logging, drilling and traffic. "Emptiness is a very important asset," said Springdale resident Eric Bonner. The COP lawmakers were stunned. Trying to please the old West by fighting federal control of Utah's wild lands, they had failed to notice that the new West had moved in.

Nowhere is the region's clash of visions and values greater than in the debate over the wilderness areas of Utah: the soaring arches and wind-carved buttes just outside Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, red-rock canyons rising like cathedrals, ancient cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians. It's all part of the last great wilderness system in the lower 48 states. Utah's U.S. House and Senate delegations have just introduced bills designating 1.8 million acres of it as wilderness; environmentalists want 5.7 million. No surprise there. What astonished the politicians is that 69 percent of the people contacting the governor's office support setting aside the higher figure. And statewide polls find that a majority favor preserving more than 1.8 million acres.

Everyone agrees that the land is the engine of the state's economy; the conflict is over which economy. To rural county commissioners hungry for development, drilling, mining and grazing are the only ways to eke out a living from the land. Tourism doesn't cut it. Hikers, says Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston, "come into my county with a pair of shorts and a $20 bill and leave without changing either." Even if tourists spend money, says Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd, "we need an economic base besides pumping gas and cleaning toilets." Others counter that scenery not only draws tourists, but also provides the playgrounds that attract workers to the high-tech industries flowing into Utah. "Our wilderness is the goose that lays the golden egg," says Springdale Mayor Phillip Bimstein.

The Senate considers the wilderness bill this week, and a House subcommittee led by Utah's Rep. James Hansen takes it up next week. Hartsen argues that "most people can't even tell you what wilderness means," and when they understand that it means absolutely no vehicles and no development, their enthusiasm will evaporate. In the new West, though, gauging what the folks back home want isn't as easy as it used to be.