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They're the pit bulls of Utah's environmental community. The unyielding, every-acre-or-die, self-proclaimed protectors of the redrock known as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

They have friends on Capitol Hill who can block bills they don't like, and when that doesn't work, they employ aggressive lawyers happy to litigate the government into submission.

For years, SUWA has waged fierce and unforgiving combat against energy producers, conservative county officials and even the state's members of Congress.

But a new chapter in the debate over Utah wilderness is unfolding. The party in power is much more receptive to protecting public lands. Rural Utah leaders want to sit down with environmentalists and craft a compromise. And their environmental group of choice, the more congenial Wilderness Society, is boosting its Utah presence.

As a result, the attack dogs are now faced with a new future where their tried-and-true tactics may not be the best way to safeguard the land they love. Within Utah's environmental community, and inside SUWA itself, a debate is raging about what role this powerful group should play from here on out.

"We have to decide if we want to be a 'no' organization or a 'yes' organization," said SUWA board member Ted Wilson, who wants to see the group take a more cooperative posture. "I think it's hard on some people. At some level it is almost a religious war, and the people who love the land love it deeply."

But Utah politicians are skeptical that SUWA has the capacity to evolve.

"I have learned that they will never, ever deal," said a visibly frustrated Utah Sen. Bob Bennett. "Uncompromising is the word."


Redrock wilderness » SUWA is the only Utah-based environmental organization with a presence in D.C. It is also one of only two state-based wilderness groups -- the other is in Alaska -- with a national following that combine lobbying and a litigation department.

SUWA was created in the early 1980s by a collection of activists who didn't want oil rigs, homes or roads to dot lands they say should be kept pristine forever.

In 1989, then Utah Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens introduced its flagship proposal: America's Red Rock Wilderness Act. The bill sought to designate more than 5 million acres of federal land as wilderness, a move that irritated county officials who hoped to access some of those parcels to grow their tax bases.

Rather than seek middle ground, SUWA dug in, and in the intervening years its proposal has grown to include 9.4 million acres.

When Owens left Congress in 1993, the group turned to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., to sponsor the bill and he has continued to do so.

Every spring a stream of eager SUWA members visits Utah's representatives and senators trying to persuade them to back the Red Rock Act. And every spring for the past 20 years, they have been rejected.

SUWA sees these annual pitches as a way to keep the pressure on in the highly contentious wilderness debate, but Utah's members of Congress say they are emblematic of SUWA's all-or-nothing approach that has bred deep resentment among many in rural parts of the state.

"It's a charade that we play," said Cody Stewart, who has witnessed about a dozen such meetings as a staffer for Rep. Rob Bishop and former Rep. Chris Cannon. "There really is no effort to engage and negotiate. It's like they have written us off."

Bishop calls the Red Rock Act "a lousy bill." Bennett sees it as nothing but a ploy to keep SUWA members paying dues. Rep. Jim Matheson says it isn't a serious attempt at policy.

And Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, condemns it as an "outrageous" attempt by outsiders to determine the future of Utah.

"I think the vast majority of the state would be very upset if people from the East can dictate the tie-up of our lands," he said.


Power base » SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene's standard response is that "these are national lands that belong to all Americans." But it's clear he's tired of what he considers "weak arguments," which attempt to discredit passionate advocates instead of confronting the merits of their proposal.

Yet, it's hard to ignore that while SUWA is based in Utah, its power base lies elsewhere. SUWA has 14,600 paying members who each give the group at least $30 annually to help feed its annual $2 million budget. About 3,100 -- or a little more than one-fifth of them -- are Utahns.

"There is a great amount of pressure we can bring to bear on Congress just through that network," said SUWA lobbyist Richard Peterson-Cremer.

Each year, SUWA asks its members to contact their federal lawmakers. Some even come to Washington to help drum up co-sponsors for the Red Rock Act.

This year the bill has 113 House co-sponsors and 17 Senate co-sponsors. While every member of Rhode Island's delegation is on board and all but one of Massachusetts's lawmakers have signed on, none of the co-sponsors hail from Utah.

SUWA believes it has helped protect the land in spite of the views of Utah's politicians, and to do so, the group has had to reach outside the state's borders.

"We need to have a national presence to be able to protect this landscape," Groene said.

But even with one-fourth of Congress backing the bill, it has never received a hearing and never been voted on. SUWA knows without some Utah support, the chances are almost zero that it will become law.

"It is largely up to them," said Hinchey, noting that Congress rarely overrides home state members on such a bill.

Despite this, SUWA still sees great value in consistently introducing and pushing the long-shot legislation.

In essence, the group sees it as a high-profile way to plant its flag and proclaim what it stands for. It also is an easy way to identify wilderness-friendly lawmakers, who have repeatedly come to SUWA's aid to block legislation or object to administrative actions.

Groene argues that SUWA's hard-line stance has forced Utah politicians to concede that there will be more wilderness protection; the issue now is how many millions of acres.

"Every time the Utah delegation introduced a bill, it got better. Cedar Mountain crossed the line into acceptable," Groene said.


Opponents collaborate » In 2006, Congress passed a Cedar Mountains wilderness bill, sponsored by Bishop and supported by SUWA, that protected 100,000 acres. But it was much more than a land-use bill. Bishop was mainly interested in using the wilderness designation to protect a nearby military installation from a proposed nuclear waste storage facility. Still, the proposal allowed the two traditional political opponents to establish a mutual respect.

"They have not had that same relationship with other offices," Bishop points out.

The same year SUWA helped Bishop, the group fought against Bennett and Matheson, who developed a Washington County lands bill. After a series of major changes, President Barack Obama signed that legislation into law earlier this year as part of a larger package of conservation bills. It protects 256,000 acres, while allowing the government to sell 9,000 non-sensitive acres to developers.

Once it passed, SUWA trumpeted the legislation and claimed credit for much of its success. The group also thanked Bennett in a half-page ad in the D.C. publication Roll Call .

But Bennett and Matheson remain bitter, saying that SUWA's staff worked behind the scenes to poison the agreement up to 48 hours before the decisive vote and at times spread misinformation.

"That has not gone unnoticed," seethed Bennett, who insinuates that SUWA supported the bill only because it wanted to be on the winning side.

But SUWA staff members say that's not true. They were only trying to improve the legislation, adding new protections against off-road vehicles on certain routes.

"That is not opposition to the bill. That's negotiating," said Scott Braden, a SUWA lobbyist in D.C.

Bennett and Matheson refuse to give SUWA any credit; instead they heap praise on the more moderate Wilderness Society for coming into the state and helping negotiate a compromise.


Soften the image » The Wilderness Society is now hiring a Utah director who will work on future county-level wilderness bills. Some in the environmental community see this as a way to undermine or bypass SUWA's influence, but SUWA says it welcomes the move.

And The Wilderness Society's Colorado director, Suzanne Jones, said: "SUWA may not be liked, but they are respected. They will also be an important player at the negotiating table."

SUWA Chairman Darrell Knuffke represents the segment of the group's board of directors who want to see the group maintain its hard-line stance, accepting compromises only in the rarest of circumstances.

But he said the group isn't obstructionist for the sake of being obstructionists.

"We are not weird. We are not bomb throwers. We are committed wilderness advocates," said Knuffke, who splits his time between Colorado and New Mexico.

Wilson, a former Salt Lake City mayor, is more willing to play deal maker.

He feels a greater urgency to protect the lands because of the "audacious use" of off-road vehicles, which he says are causing irreparable damage. Wilson is tired of stalemates and is "very much in favor of a new age of reconciliation."

The staff has come down somewhere in the middle, with Groene and Peterson-Cremer proclaiming they are ready to engage in crafting a set of county-level wilderness bills in the model of Washington County.

"It's fully possible that we can achieve the vision of America's Red Rock Wilderness Act without ever passing the Red Rock bill," said Peterson-Cremer, who acknowledges that the transition will not be easy. "Those compromises are always extremely difficult for us to come by and to accept."

The advocates of a new approach are seeking to soften their pit bull image and build trust with former rivals without retreating on their mission to defend the redrock at all cost.

"We are really passionate about trying to see this landscape protected," Groene said. "But I believe we are pragmatic pit bulls; as long as we can make a step forward, we are going to."

Numbers Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Founded » In 1983 and headquartered in Salt Lake City, with offices in Moab and Washington, D.C.

Budget »$2 million annually

U.S. membership » 14,600

Utah membership »3,100

Goal » To get permanent protection for 9.4 million acres of redrock that members believe are wilderness quality lands.