Nearly 18 years have passed since then-Gov. Mike Leavitt convened a growth summit to discuss ways to preserve critical open spaces, agricultural land and watersheds while allowing newcomers to build homes and thrive. In some ways, it seems like a century ago.
As predicted, the state has experienced much growth since then, but lawmakers today seem to have little concern left about conserving important lands for the future. Gov. Gary Herbert recommended putting $200,000 in the LeRay McAllister Fund for conservation during the current legislative session, but it appears lawmakers may instead appropriate nothing. Money is tight, but the failure to invest in this important fund may cost the state dearly in the long run.
The McAllister fund is exactly the sort of tool a conservative state, with an eye toward protecting property rights, ought to be championing for conservation. Named for a longtime legislator who died in 2005, the fund receives an annual appropriation that is then matched by private conservation groups, most notably The Nature Conservancy. The money then is used to acquire conservation easements on, or fee title to, Utah's critical open and agricultural lands, paying fair market values. Many private landowners have spent a lifetime as responsible stewards of their property and desire to preserve their land as protected watershed or as rangeland. Some simply want to preserve it for agricultural uses. The fund allows them to be properly compensated. Without this, many landowners and their children would find the lure of profits from developers too strong to resist.
Since the fund's inception in 1999, lawmakers have continually pushed to starve the fund, always finding other, more pressing needs for the money. The highest level ever funded was $3.3 million in 2005. Meanwhile, the state's growth rate has remained near the highest in the nation. Neighboring states Arizona, Nevada and Colorado have historically spent much more toward conservation. Significantly, when severe budget troubles hit Arizona because of the recession, voters were asked to approve transferring $123.5 million from a dedicated land-conservation fund to the general fund in order to help balance the state's books. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea, 74 percent to 26 percent.
If Utah lawmakers followed Herbert's recommendation, the McAllister Fund would increase to a scant $800,000, which is pitiful by comparison.
It should go without saying that once open space or agricultural land is developed, reclaiming it is nearly impossible. Utahns are rightly concerned by any conservation efforts that might rob people of property rights, but the McAllister fund is entirely voluntary. It is particularly needed along and near the state's most populous corridors, where growth shows no sign of abating.
A 1975 Salt Lake County master plan attempted to predict population growth by 1995. It failed entirely to anticipate the development of the southwest side, where hamlets like South Jordan, Riverton and Herriman have grown into substantial suburbs. The farms that dotted that land in '75 are mostly gone now. What will growth do during the next 20 to 50 years? What will be done to ensure green spaces remain and water flows freely?
Today's political stewards need to consider these questions.