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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Dane Leavitt, left, and Brad Barber hike on property above Zion National Park.

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.

"We've never sat down before as a group to talk about where we want growth to go and what we want it to be," said Ron Thompson, director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. "This bill maps out a regional and local plan for growth. It is a win-win, collaborative effort that serves the county as a whole."

However, some people across the state and nationally have voiced opposition to the bill. In a June 5 letter signed by 31 national conservation groups and sent to Bennett and Matheson, the lands bill is vilified as a "perverse incentive to liquidate our natural heritage when immediate financial demands arise."

Nearly two dozen letters to the editor, published in newspapers around the state, have criticized the legislation.

"If you have traveled to Washington County recently, you know that the place we knew and loved from a few years ago is no more," wrote Catherine Smith, of Kaysville, in comments submitted to the lawmakers. "The area is hardly distinguishable from the urban sprawl of the Los Angeles basin or Las Vegas. How does it benefit the public to expedite this growth by offering development inducements from any source, let alone from sale of public land?"

Glenn Rogers, chairman of the Shivwits Band of the Paiute Tribe of Utah, said the land-use bill raises a red flag for his people.

"What gets me is that developers want this land real bad," said Rogers. "They'll have homes building right next to the reservation."

California-based environmental historian Wade Graham, writing in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times last month, called the bill a "brazen" land grab that would sell off public land to benefit private developers. The measure's provisions for the Lake Powell Pipeline also could affect water supplies for 25 million people in seven Western states, added Graham, who is a board member of the Glen Canyon Institute, a Colorado River restoration group based in Salt Lake City.

"Washington County's attempted water heist isn't just a local crackpot scheme," he wrote. "A new tap puts everyone's supplies in jeopardy."

A battle ahead

The measure does have some vocal supporters. Zion National Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth said the bill would help protect the Virgin River and thousands of acres of proposed wilderness area in the park.

"It's been 22 years since we first recommended designating those areas as wilderness," said Whitworth. "It would be very exciting to actually see that happen. It would also give us some good management tools to help us preserve and protect resources within the park."

Dale Grange, president of the 200-member Tri-State OHV Club, said he likes the bill with one exception.

"It's a great bill, except they didn't protect RS-2477 roads in the county," said Grange, referring to hundreds of miles of undeveloped back roadways.

But opponents are vowing to continue their fight. The Utah Wilderness Coalition said last week the bill introduced in Congress "needs to be dramatically changed if it is going to effectively balance growth and conservation."

Bennett and Matheson promised that after the legislation is introduced in Congress and before any vote is taken, both the House and Senate would hold public hearings on the bill.

Fitzgerald said members of Citizens for Dixie's Future question the bill's purpose, and she believes it needs revision.

"We want the county commissioners to know of our concerns and to hopefully bring about some changes in the bill," she said. "We have a lot at stake."

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com