Bills to expand Arches National Park and to allow a huge land swap to bring long-sought money to Utah schools both achieved their next-to-last step before final passage.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously passed both bills Wednesday and sent them to the full Senate. Both have previously passed the House.The land swap bill has been moving at lightning speed through Congress.
It was proposed in May by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to end battles over state lands buried in national parks and forests. Those lands were intended to raise money for schools, but could not be developed within the parks.
In the trade, Utah would give the federal government a checkerboard-pattern of 376,739 acres of school trust lands - including the Jacob Hamblin Arch on Lake Powell, the Eye of the Whale Arch in Arches National Park and rock art in Dinosaur National Monument.
In exchange, Utah would receive $50 million in cash, 140,000 acres of mineral-rich federal lands that can be developed and leases for coal and other minerals.
If the deal is approved, a state board that oversees school trust lands would also drop its lawsuit challenging President Clinton's secretive creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"This new land exchange is an excellent step in healing the wounds and instilling trust of government among the citizens of Utah," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is co-sponsoring that bill in the Senate with Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
Bennett added, "It is rewarding to see consensus finally reached among diverse public interests in our state. . .. I'm encouraged by the ability, in this circumstance, of all involved parties to sit down together and decide what is best for the land."
By also passing the separate Arches bill, the committee approved expanding the park by 3,140 acres to add the Lost Spring Canyon area to its northeast section.
The bill was developed by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who says the straight lines drawn when the park was formed cut the canyon in half - and did not follow natural boundaries.
"We can now restore Lost Spring Canyon to its natural borders, protect natural wildlife and resources in the park and expand the back country opportunities for visitors," said Bennett, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
That bill had been opposed by more extreme environmental groups, who worried it was an attempt to subvert proposed wilderness protection of the area.
However last month, Bennett, the Clinton administration and more moderate environmental groups said plans call for adding no new roads or campgrounds in that area. They also plan to buy out and remove existing grazing rights in the area, and have the area managed to protect its wilderness values.
Bennett said, "This expansion will enhance the experience of the park visitor, and just as important, protect the geological treasures in this breathtaking area of our state."
Bennett noted that the area includes 10 free-standing arches, narrow canyons with 300-foot-high walls and balanced rocks.