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High Noon at Sundance Kid's Utah Resort

State lawmakers take jab at Redford's green politics

Environmentalism begins at home. Or, in Utah's what-goes-around-comes-around politics, it may begin at Robert Redford's door.

In this booming Western state, conservative lawmakers are taking a swipe at the Hollywood director's activism by declaring his Sundance ski resort a possible wilderness area.

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"If he's really sincere about protecting the environment, he ought to be willing to set aside some of his own land," says Republican state Rep. Bradley Johnson, an Aurora cattle rancher who drafted the resolution, which easily passed the state House and now awaits a Senate vote. It calls for studying the possibility of designating part of Mr. Redford's 6,000-acre resort in Provo Canyon as protected wilderness.

The jab at Redford is representative of the clash between the political views of newcomers and many long-time residents - a conflict that is as pronounced in Utah as anywhere in the West. It also serves as testament to the viciousness of the debate between conservatives and conservationists over the best use of public land. With some 60 percent of Utah land owned by the federal government, the issue of development versus preservation has heated to a high pitch in recent years.

Representative Johnson concedes that the poke at Redford - an outspoken champion of preserving undeveloped land in Utah - is more to make a point than to force the famous actor to set aside a wilderness area. But Johnson insists there's a valid message. "So many people want to set aside land for environmental purposes, but they want someone else to make the sacrifice. This resolution allows [Redford] to put his money where his mouth is. If he wants to save the world, he can start with his own land."

As the battle over public lands plays out in the vast canyons of southern Utah, even an American icon like Redford can become quickly unpopular here.

"I love it. I think it's fabulous," says Utah native Jennifer Green of the proposal. "I'm opposed to any new wilderness designations. But I'm not opposed to singling out Redford like this," she laughs. "He's like a lot of people who come into the state and say they' re going to save Utah from the Utahans."

Redford, who was at President Clinton's side last fall when he designated 1.7 million acres of federal land in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is unmoved by Johnson's brand of humor. "Rep. Johnson is usurping the time of the Utah State Legislature and its staff with something that is nothing more than a publicity stunt - a publicity stunt paid for by taxpayer money," Redford says in a statement. The Escalante land was not "taken away" from anyone, he notes. "It was given back to those who own it: The American people."

But residents in rural, southern Utah - where coal-mining is the predominant industry - viewed Escalante land not just as public land, but as their future. "There are billions of dollars [worth] of coal that people relied on for their livelihood now locked up by the wilderness designation," says Ms. Green. "Some of these people have been there for generations, and now they have no viable source of income."

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And Johnson says Redford enjoys all the benefits of developing his own land. "That's in direct opposition to what he's talking about."

Redford' s high-profile status of course makes him an easy target for the anti-wilderness contingent. "It comes with the territory, no pun intended," agrees Joyce Deep, an assistant to Redford. "But Sundance resort and the Sundance Film Festival contribute a lot of money to the tax base of Utah and provide a lot of jobs here. There are so many more important issues that deserve the time and resources of the Utah Legislature. This seems like a silly thing for them to devote their attention to."

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