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Getting a handle on the Real Extremists

By Mike Reberg

Like a buzzard waiting for death to arrive, Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson eyed the floor of Congress from his perch in the House gallery. Our anti-wilderness Cowboy Commissioner had soared the jet stream all the way to Washington DC earlier this month to watch the conservation community put up its final struggle-a floor debate and vote on the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act-then die a legislative death.

Johnson, aided from the beginning by Chris Cannon and Jim Hansen, Utah congressmen rabid with anti-wilderness sentiment and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's endorsement, was convinced he was there to witness the final breaths of the Utah Wilderness Coalition's opposition. The Coalition had been trying to improve the San Rafael Swell national conservation area legislation ever since Cannon offered it up in February. The coalition believed the bill provided too few protections for the spectacular and beloved region of central Utah. It was willing to support the bill, but only with changes.

Johnson, Cannon and Hansen must have smelled victory. Hansen quickly scheduled floor time for the legislation just days before. An easy day, they must have figured. A couple of amendment votes, about an hour's worth of debate, and the "environmental extremists" (plus a few misguided, rabble-rousing Democrats) would be finished, leaving Johnson to swoop vulture-like down to feed on the carrion-in this case a $10 million bonus appropriation for Emery County tucked in bill's language.

That's what Randy Johnson must have thought anyway. That's what most people thought. The conservation community had done all it could do, but Babbitt's support of the measure was like a gut shot to the coalition, and that had made passage of the San Rafael Western Legacy District and National Conservation Act seem likely. Smart money was on the one-two punch of the Republican controlled House and Interior's support.

So what happened during the next several hours was nothing short of incredible. House Democrats didn't die. Joined by a small band of conservation minded Republicans, they started making the legislation better with amendments supported by the conservation community. Not great amendments mind you, but amendments that would, on the front end, provide the Swell expanded boundaries, real protections against off-road vehicle abuse, and some protections for wilderness quality areas. Those protections, conservationists believed, were essential while a four-year planning process, mandated in the bill, took place for the region. But rather than accept those modest reforms, Cannon and Hansen pulled the bill from the floor. As this edition goes to press, the bill remains pulled.

At the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance office, staffers watching the entire four-hour debate on C-Span cheered. For some time now, SUWA and other coalition members have been labeled as "all-or-nothing environmental extremists" by Utah's anti-wilderness politicians and by many editorial pages in the state. Mainstream Americans have never believed that. Mainstream Utahans don't believe it either.

It was, therefore, interesting to watch the contrast between those seeking real protections for the San Rafael Swell and those trying to pass the bill as is. Democrat after Democrat rose to speak with eloquence and passion about the need to provide real protections for the San Rafael Swell. Republican pitchmen like Hansen and Cannon spent their time reminding House Democrats that one of their own, Babbitt himself, supported the bill, and that the only groups opposed were "environmental extremists."

"Babbitt cut a bad deal," George Miller (D-CA) told his Republican colleagues, and Brian Baird (D-WA) who has probably spent more time in Utah's desert country then Hansen or Cannon said these words: "These areas we are talking about have a silence most Americans cannot imagine. It is a silence that is breathtaking, a silence that is awe-inspiring, a silence which must be preserved."

After the debate, Utah 2nd Congressional District Congressman Merrill Cook said he heard a lot of people complain about Hansen and Cannon's constant use of the word "extremists."

"When half the Congress wants more wilderness, you can't call that position extremists. You may argue against it, but you can't call it extremists," Cook was quoted as saying.

Cook is absolutely correct. A majority of the House of Representatives were ready to give the San Rafael Swell the protection it deserves. Democrats and Republicans, representing a huge cross-section of regular Americans, demanded a better deal for their constituents. (after all, Americans are the ones who own America's federal lands)

As expected, some large Utah newspapers called the bill's defeat a missed opportunity, blaming the environmental community and its "all or nothing" approach. Unfortunately, that has become their typical provincial reaction to this national issue whether it is accurate or not.

The reality is that when the bill started to get modest on-the-ground protections for the land, Cannon and Hansen pulled the measure from the floor. And truth be told, Hansen had to twist a lot of Republican arms or the amendment votes would not have been that close.

On this national issue of federal public land preservation in Utah, Cannon, Hansen and our Emery County friend Randy Johnson turned out to be the extremists. They wanted it their way or "nothing at all."