The state subsidy to regional government associations has been doubled, and at least one environmental group says the extra money will be used to fight wilderness.
The Legislature has directed the state Permanent Community Impact Board to increase annual funding for the Association of Governments from $142,400 to $310,000. Lawmakers said the money is to help local entities deal with land-management issues.Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance spokesman Ken Rait said the increased allocation is "obviously anti-wilderness."
The associations are multicounty agencies that help local government interact with state and federal counterparts and help deliver services provided by the larger entities.
The Legislature said the money could be used for several purposes.
But it's primary goal is to help local governments "respond to public land-management issues arising from Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Park Service initiatives," said William D. Howell, executive director of the Southeast Association of Governments.
Howell's association includes Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties, which contain large chunks of the BLM's proposed 1.4 million-acre wilderness areas.
Poor, rural counties don't have staffs to deal with complex and significant land-management issues, Howell said.
For example, the final environmental impact statement for the BLM's wilderness proposal totaled 11 volumes - and that's just one document, he said.
"If the federal government didn't own a vast majority of the land in these counties, then the management plans and studies wouldn't be worthy of much discussion," he said.
"But since it does, the decisions sometimes have a major impact on their culture, customs and economy, and local government is rightfully concerned about that and wants to be involved," Howell said.
Moreover, local governments often feel left out of the process when "self-styled environmental organizations" challenge federal land-management plans, he said.
"Local governments need the capacity to respond to those challenges and speak for the people," he said.
Howell said the purpose of the additional funding is not to battle environmentalists, but he is certain some groups will see it that way.
Rait is convinced the money will "largely go to anti-wilderness campaigns," which he said is improper use of PCIB funds.