The proposed legislation would sell off about 25,000 acres of public lands and use the proceeds for various conservation and growth-related projects in the county. The original draft of the bill included the Virgin River Headwaters Project as one of the benefactors of the public-land sale.
But the final version of the bill introduced in Congress includes no mention of the project. Various environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, had criticized the draft bill after it was unveiled in March. The Nature Conservancy cited "unacceptable water developments," among other worries.
Barber, of the Oquirrh Institute, said he believes that contributed to the Virgin River Headwaters Project being dropped from the bill.
"It's unfortunate, but I think the Nature Conservancy's position on the bill probably had something to do with it," Barber said.
Utah representatives with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club said they are wary of selling public lands to fund private conservation projects.
"While it's been said that some of the proceeds will go toward private conservation efforts, there's no guidance on where the money would go and no prioritizing of projects," said Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA. "In general, we're leery of selling public lands to meet other needs. We would prefer that Congress appropriate funds separately to fund those needs."
Lawson LeGate, senior Southwest regional representative of the Sierra Club, said the authors of the bill are "in grave danger of overreaching" in their attempt to solve a problem.
"It's a big mistake for the authors of this bill to try and buy off various members of the community," said LeGate. "From our perspective, it sets a dangerous precedent. If elected officials can succeed at using our federal public lands for their own pet projects, you can bet that officials in other states will try it."
But the Nature Conservancy has no qualms about the proposed funding mechanism and remains hopeful that the project will succeed."Private land conservation is an appropriate thing to be paid for with legislation of this type," said Amanda Smith of the Nature Conservancy. "We very much support this method, if the public lands are appropriately sold. Much of what needs to be attained with the conservation easements has a lot of public value."
Preserving the land
Livermore said protecting the Kanarra Mountain ranches from development would reduce threats to vital watersheds, provide a buffer for Zion National Park and preserve crucial wildlife habitat, all of which are beneficial to the public.
"Due to the growth of St. George and Las Vegas, there is increasing pressure in this area from second-home development," says Livermore. "We will never have another chance to protect the Kanarra Mountain region. Escalating land prices alone will put the area out of reach."
The Websters, like other southern Utah families with large land holdings, know that real estate is selling for astronomical prices here. But few of these landowners are anxious to divvy up their land for sale to the highest bidder.
"Most of these families own this property from homesteading days," Leavitt said during a recent bumpy drive past the Leavitt family cabin and on to the Webster place for a visit. "These people have deep, deep ties to the land."
Leavitt knew if the property owners didn't find a way to protect their land from future development, it was "only a matter of time before this mountain was cut up into 20 acre parcels and sold off."
The Websters say they wanted to preserve the land for their children and grandchildren, although their beloved ranching way of life may disappear over time."I'm a rancher, but it will probably end with me," Sandy Webster says. "I'm the last generation that could do it and make a living. You just can't do it anymore."
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