Lands bill: For preservation or profit?

Dixie residents at odds over proposal's impact on area

Published: Sunday, July 16 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Dane Leavitt, left, and Brad Barber hike on property above Zion National Park.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

ST. GEORGE — Proposed legislation that would allow Washington County to sell up to 25,000 acres of public lands and distribute the proceeds to other projects within the county doesn't sit well with La Verkin resident Nina Fitzgerald.

"I'm one of many residents with concerns about the wording of this bill," said Fitzgerald, who is a member of a newly formed group, Citizens for Dixie's Future. "The vagueness of it and the lack of specifics is really concerning. There seems to be a lack of transparency with the bill."

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, introduced the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006 in Congress this past week. They first unveiled the measure on March 22 at a news conference in St. George. Community leaders, elected officials and other public employees heralded the draft legislation as a positive step forward in land-use planning.

"This is an exciting time. We've had 20 different stakeholders at the table, at the meetings and on the ground, all working together on this for two years," said Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner. "Other Utah counties are anxious to see what happens."

But soon after the draft was released to the public, opposition mounted and has become national, with environmentalists calling the measure a massive sell-off of federal public lands.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition and a host of other environmental groups charge that passage of the bill, as it is now written, would fuel unneeded, expansive development in Washington County. The coalition includes the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wasatch Mountain Club and the Wilderness Society.

"The more that I look at this, it seems it's really not so much about the land. It's about selling the land and capturing the revenue," said Lawson LeGate, the Sierra Club's senior Southwest regional representative. "It's really a matter of choice. Do we treat public lands as a heritage and treasure, or do we treat it as a cash cow?"

National concern

Gardner bristles at any suggestion that the county is selling off its heritage to the highest bidder.

"I don't know that anybody's getting rich off of this bill," said Gardner, a rancher who also holds federal grazing permits within the county. "If we're not going to have any more growth in Washington County, we might as well tell our kids, 'See you when you come back to visit.' I think overall this bill is going to help the entire county."

The draft bill would designate more than 219,000 acres as wilderness, preserve utility corridors, create an off-road trail system, develop a new conservation area, protect 170 miles of the Virgin River, and sell to the highest bidder up to 25,000 acres of public land at fair market value.

So far, about 4,300 acres now managed by the Bureau of Land Management have been pegged for possible sale. The remaining 20,000 acres have yet to be identified. A local "quality-growth planning board" would nominate which public lands should be offered for sale, according to the bill's summary.

Fifteen percent of the land-sale proceeds would go to local projects such as the state school-trust fund, fire- and flood-control projects and the Washington County Water Conservancy District. The remaining 85 percent would be spent on land purchases to help preserve endangered species, capital improvements on various federal public lands and other unspecified conservation projects throughout Washington County.

While funding is not specifically allocated for the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, utility corridors are designated that would benefit the massive water project.

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