TOM BEARDEN: This is the San Rafael swell in central Utah...a jumble of upturned rock strata that two rivers have sliced into spectacular canyons. Utah's Republican governor Mike Leavitt took a NewsHour crew on a tour of the area.
For 25 years various interests have been locked in battle over how much of this kind of spectacular landscape should be designated as federal wilderness. By definition, wilderness must be pristine...without roads..."untrammeled by man."
When such a designation is made by Congress, all commercial activity is forbidden--no drilling for oil or gas, no mining, no cutting of timber. The only access permitted is on foot or horseback.
And that's the heart of the debate about wilderness. Advocates see it as preserving the last, best places in America. But some of the people who live near potential wilderness areas see it as foreclosing their economic future.
The wilderness debate has been particularly contentious in Utah, a state with only a few thousand acres of land set aside as wilderness.
GOV. MIKE LEAVITT: This is a wilderness study area from this point out.
TOM BEARDEN: Governor Leavitt says finding a compromise between the warring camps has been extraordinarily elusive
GOV. MIKE LEAVITT: Many times I have felt that we were getting to the point it was ripe and that we could solve the problem, each time to find that the extremes simply weren't willing to come to the table -- all driven by a political agenda of their own that reflects their own values. But the land is not well served by this. Our economic and our environmental uh capacity to sustain is, is not served by this.
TOM BEARDEN: The argument erupted anew this spring when the Bush administration settled a lawsuit that Utah had brought against the Clinton administration in 1996.
At the time, about 3.2 million acres of land in Utah was under study to become wilderness.
Then the Clinton Interior Department designated an additional 2.6 million acres of land for wilderness consideration. Land in other states was also added.
Utah sued, arguing that the additional designation was illegal...that only Congress and not the executive branch could designate wilderness lands.
Bush Interior Secretary Gail Norton said the Justice Department advised her the department was about to lose the case...and settled the lawsuit out of court.
In the settlement, they agreed to drop the acreage added under President Clinton and said it would no longer be considered for wilderness designation. The environmental community went ballistic. They said the settlement essentially means the end of any new wilderness consideration of western land. Some said it was part of a pattern by the administration to hamstring important environmental laws.
Jim Angell is the lead attorney for Earthjustice, a not-for-profit environmental law firm.
JIM ANGELL, Earthjustice: The Bush administration reached a behind closed doors settlement of a lawsuit in which it fundamentally reinterpreted its, one of its most fundamental environmental laws. The Bureau of Land Management won't be able to look to see which of its lands have wilderness characteristics and they won't be able to give them the highest level of protection that they had been able to in the past.
TOM BEARDEN: When land is being studied for wilderness status, it's managed as if it already is. But when it's removed from consideration, it can be opened for motorized recreation and mineral and gas exploration.
HEIDI MACINTOSH: ...Wilderness area, and they've claimed the hiking trails within the wilderness area, now of course the wilderness area...
TOM BEARDEN: Heidi Macintosh is the chief counsel of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
HEIDI MACINTOSH: We're worried about oil and gas development, we're worried about the expansion of off-road vehicle use. We're seeing a growth of off-road vehicle use in Utah from about 1988 when there were about 20,000 vehicles to now when there are almost 130,000 registered vehicles, ATV's and dirt bikes.
TOM BEARDEN: MacIntosh says the settlement will impact not only the disputed land in Utah, but hundreds of thousands of acres from Alaska to California.
Pat Shea is the former head of the Bureau of Land Management and a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration.
PAT SHEA: If the courts don't overturn it, to my mind it will nibble away at one of America's great resources, and that's the open spaces of the west. And it would be, from my perspective and certainly for future generation's perspective, tragedy to have them not designated wilderness.
TOM BEARDEN: Assistant Secretary of Interior Lynn Scarlett says the additional land that is no longer being studied as wilderness in Utah and elsewhere as a result of the settlement won't necessarily be thrown open to rampant development, either.
LYNN SCARLETT: The Department is going to continue to manage those 23 million acres of Bureau of Land Management acres that had been proposed to Congress for wilderness. We will continue to manage our national parks and our fish and wildlife refuge wildernesses. In fact, they're completely untouched by the settlement.
TOM BEARDEN: Scarlett says the settlement also doesn't foreclose future wilderness consideration.
LYNN SCARLETT: What we've done in this settlement, first of all, leaving untouched the BLM Land Management process gives continued opportunities for the public to participate in saying, gee we think this ought to be a wilderness area, we think you ought to manage that area. That process is very much intact.
TOM BEARDEN: But environmentalists say the process is anything but intact because of another new agreement between Utah and the Bureau of Land Management. That agreement said that a 19th century law called RS-2477 can be used to determine what is and isn't a road--a key point since lands with roads cannot become wilderness. Environmentalists say the state is misusing the law, trying to claim old game trails and jeep tracks as actual roads, with the intent of thwarting future wilderness designations.
HEIDI MACINTOSH: The first thing to understand about RS-2477 is that it has nothing to do with roads. What it has to do with is disqualifying grounds for protection as wilderness area or national parks. The law says that RS-2477 covers real roads, that they had to be constructed and that they had to actually go somewhere as highways. The governor's criteria focuses instead mainly on use. Can you drive it? And in the desert where some of the soil is packed hard, you can drive cross-country almost anywhere you'd like.
TOM BEARDEN: But Governor Leavitt says environmentalists are trying to twist the law themselves...to ignore existing, major roads in order to get more acres designated as wilderness.
He showed us an area adjacent to the San Rafael Swell that environmentalists claim should be wilderness.
GOV. MIKE LEAVITT: This is a very good example of an RS-2477 road. I don't know the history on this road but it has undoubtedly been here for seventy-five, a hundred years, and this is not a road-less area.
TOM BEARDEN: Brian Hawthorn says Governor Leavitt is moving in the right direction to protect backcountry roads for recreational use. He's the head of the states largest all terrain vehicle association.
BRIAN HAWTHORN: Shared Access Alliance. There is very little talk about the value of these roads and the wonderful experience they provide. They are roads that are owned by the American people and they are held in trust by the county and state, and again, they are national treasures and we should protect them.
TOM BEARDEN: Traditionally, Utah's business community has been more or less aligned with state government, opposing the larger wilderness proposals. But one sector has recently come down firmly in opposition to the settlements.
Peter Metcalf owns Black Diamond, a hiking and mountain climbing equipment manufacturer in Salt Lake City. He led the National Outdoor Retailers Association to threaten to move its two yearly major trade shows out of Utah to someplace more wilderness friendly. That would cost the state about $24 million.
PETER METCALF: Right now the most recent actions on behalf of the governor, specifically the backroom deal that he and Secretary Norton cut, has taken away wilderness study protection for many millions of acres in Utah, many of which hold some of the most pristine and beautiful canyon area climbing, backpacking areas in the state. And they're now open for potential mineral exploitation, mining, additional grazing, new roads, that sort of thing, that just despoil the environments that many of our customers go to use.
TOM BEARDEN: The association and the governor's office will meet throughout the summer in an effort to work out a deal. But environmentalists aren't ready to deal; they've appealed the lawsuit settlement and plan to do the same with the road agreement.
MARGARET WARNER: Tonight in Washington, the House is expected to vote on a Democrat- sponsored amendment barring funding for the Utah roads agreement.