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'Sagebrush Rebels' Learn the Fine Art Of Compromise

The 'in-your-face' politics of the rural West is giving way to negotiations over how to manage vast land holdings of the US government

On the office wall at Tracy Jeffs' auto-repair shop hangs the jersey of this town's claim to fame - Shawn Bradley, center for the New Jersey Nets, who as a teenager worked summers here changing motor oil.

Down the road at Big Mama's cafe, townsfolk dissect the performance of the high school football team. At first glance, nothing much seems to disturb the rhythm of life in this quiet town of 2,000 set amid the vast desert and canyon lands of central Utah.

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But it doesn't take long to find the one subject that raises hackles here and in rural communities like this across the West - land, and who controls it.

Not 10 years ago, Mr. Jeffs was among the "sagebrush rebels," bristling with protest over efforts by Congress and US agencies to revise land-management policies and set aside "wilderness." Those were the days when local officials in places like Nye County, Nev., and Catron County, N.M., were brandishing the antigovernment sword. Now, growth and urbanization are transforming the West, forcing Jeffs and other rural residents to accept hard lessons about the changing politics of the region.

"Whether we like it or not, there is a new political reality in this country," says Castle Rock's Wes Curtis, a specialist on rural development for the Utah Center for Rural Life. "For people to say 'no more wilderness,' that's ridiculous. We have to play our hand as best we can."

So, two years ago Jeffs and Mr. Curtis helped form the Emery County Public Lands Council to formulate their own policy for protecting the land. Their approach includes recognition of a wilderness area - and cooperation with federal agencies that manage it.

Around these parts, though, wilderness is still a fighting word for many Westerners. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the man in charge of US lands, is public enemy No. 1. Second on the list is President Clinton, who enraged many in Utah last month by creating a national monument in the Escalante canyon area south of here.

"What Bruce Babbitt and his friend are trying to do is take our freedom, our livelihoods, our traditional way of life away from us and run us off," says Kenneth Thompson, who runs a small business here. His wife, Dixie, a former county commissioner, is a firebrand of the antiwilderness movement. As far as the Thompsons are concerned, the only solution is "zero wilderness."

Theirs is a position born of the fact that federal agencies, principally the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, control 92 percent of Emery County, a situation typical of rural counties across the West. Along with the ranchers who graze cattle on federally owned rangeland, about 80 percent of the 10,400 people in this county depend directly or indirectly on jobs provided by two power plants and the coal mines that feed them.

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But Emery County also encompasses the San Rafael Swell, a geological wonderland of red sandstone and limestone-layered canyons. Environmentalists want to include the Swell among 5.7 million acres of Utah land to be designated as protected wilderness.

To the growing number of environmentalists in Utah, federal agencies are already far too accommodating of the desires of loggers and miners. "For too long the public lands, especially in a state like Utah, have been managed as fiefdoms for local communities who value the land only for ways they can dig it, drill it, and mine it," says Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Public lands, he says, belong to the entire nation and should be managed for the "national interest."

This position is repudiated by old-time Westerners, even those like Jeffs and Curtis who recognize a new political era in the West. "We're saying we don't want the feds dictating to us," says Curtis. "We want to be partners. We want local control."

Politically, Emery County is bedrock-conservative territory, settled by Mormons in the last century. In the 1992 presidential election, Mr. Clinton came in third in the state, behind Ross Perot. But even though Republican nominee Bob Dole will get their votes, these rural Utah voters give their support without much enthusiasm.

"Neither of the national parties is sensitive to our rural Western issues," says Curtis. "You don't see Bob Dole picking up on this national monument and attacking Bill Clinton for what happened there."

Clinton's move to create the Escalante monument was a shot across Emery County's bow - it could have just as easily been the San Rafael Swell, says Curtis. He and Jeffs hope their Emery County Public Lands Council can find a middle ground that will preserve their coal-mining industry and its high-paying jobs while preserving the beauty of the canyon lands.

"We believe there is a common-sense approach," says Jeffs, who now hauls around a laptop computer to help organize council work (and check basketball scores). "We don't believe in being extremists. We are environmentally minded, but we don't believe in locking it all up."

Hard-liners like Mr. Thompson denounce them for "giving away the store." But the limits of this stance were apparent in the failure of Utah's congressional delegation to hold the wilderness bill to 1.8 million acres, instead of the 5.7 million sought by environmentalists.

Some environmentalists, too, are skeptical of such initiatives, seeing them as another attempt to block full-scale wilderness protection. But Brook Williams, a Salt Lake City-based conservationist who worked with the Emery council to try to formulate a land-management plan, sees this as a sign of change in rural Utah. "They're looking at the future as opposed to looking at the past to support them forever," he says.

* Previous articles in this series appeared Oct. 28 and 29.

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