John Hollenhorst reportingOne of Utah's longest and most bitter controversies is taking some new twists.
The Outdoor Retailers industry recently threatened to pull its lucrative convention out of Salt Lake, unless the Governor becomes more supportive of wilderness.
Now, the Governor says he's ready to make some moves, and hopes to turn his critics into partners.
How much of Utah's federal land should be protected as wilderness? 9 million acres as environmentalist demand? Or should it be what rural interests favor, a million or two, or even zero? The debate has raged for decades. Each year becoming more and more polarized.
GOVERNOR MIKE LEAVITT: "I'VE BEEN ADVOCATING THAT THERE'S A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS."
The Governor says he's made at least five attempts to settle it, a history of frustration and failure.
GOVERNOR MIKE LEAVITT: "THERE ARE PEOPLE ON BOTH SIDES OF THIS ISSUE WHO ARE LIKE YASSER ARAFAT IN THE MIDDLE EAST. THEY'LL TALK PEACE BUT THEY WON'T MAKE PEACE."
Now he says there's a new chance for peace.
Oddly enough it's because the Outdoors Industry attacked his position. Their customers recreate in wilderness. They threatened to pull their twice-annual convention out of Utah because of moves by the Governor they consider anti-wilderness.
GOVERNOR MIKE LEAVITT: "THE NEW ELEMENT NOW IS THAT WE HAVE ECONOMIC INTERESTS AT PLAY, NOT JUST IDEOLOGIC INTERESTS AT PLAY."
The Governor says rural counties also benefit from the recreation economy. If they can all work together, he thinks it would strengthen the center ground in the debate, isolating the extremes, or drawing them in. He meets tomorrow with Outdoors Industry leaders.
GOVERNOR MIKE LEAVITT: "I'M GOING TO SIT DOWN WITH THEM TOMORROW AND SAY, 'I NEED A PARTNER. ARE YOU IT? AND IF YOU ARE, LET'S GO TO WORK'."
He wants to dust off a 12-year-old proposal for 3.2 million acres of wilderness. He's willing to talk about even more acreage if it has wilderness qualities.
GOVERNOR MIKE LEAVITT: "THERE MAY BE MORE. BUT WE KNOW THERE'S AT LEAST 3.2 MILLION ACRES. WE NEED TO GET DOWN TO THE BUSINESS OF MAKING WILDERNESS INSTEAD OF DEBATING IT. AND ARGUING IT."
JOHN HOLLENHORST: "JUST LIKE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, THOUGH, HAVING A STRONG CENTER DOESN'T NECESSARILY MEAN THERE'S A SOLUTION. THE EXTREMES AT EACH END HAVE A TENDENCY TO PULL THINGS APART."
And it's no surprise. Old-time combatants are already telling us 3.2 million acres is way too little, or way too much.
An Outdoors Industry spokesman told us he doesn't have a specific acreage goal in mind. But he hopes to reach agreement with the Governor on a common goal, and a process for getting there.