ST. GEORGE — Two months after Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, introduced a revised version of the Washington County Growth & Conservation Act to a Senate committee, a local citizens group wants to tweak the legislation.

"It is our position that the 2008 bill satisfies citizen priorities in some cases but not others," wrote Paul Van Dam, executive director of Citizens for Dixie's Future, in a letter addressed to Bennett and the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

The five-page letter, sent June 11 and copied to five other senators including Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, outlines the group's concerns with several of the bill's provisions.

Van Dam said the bill would weaken protection of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area; could allow a highway to be built through the reserve; would provide an economic incentive to sell off public lands; and might provide funding for the Lake Powell Pipeline.

"All of these provisions in the bill are in conflict with the Vision Dixie results which indicate support for protection of critical lands, scenic open space, limited public land sales and smarter growth," wrote Van Dam. "Until these provisions are modified, this bill pushes these values further out of our reach."

In the letter, Bennett and Matheson are urged to sponsor "listening sessions" in Washington County and on the Wasatch Front.

"All citizens are 'stakeholders' in this bill and deserve to be heard," according to the letter. "Vision Dixie is a sterling example of the democratic principle that it is best to consider all voices rather than just a few."

Representatives for Bennett and Matheson said Tuesday that public input has always been a welcome part of the process. No additional formal public meetings are scheduled.

"This latest piece of legislation is a substantially different bill than the one first submitted in 2006," said Alyson Heyrend, Matheson's communication director. "Some of the questions raised in this letter don't seem to reflect the fact that this is a very different bill."

Highlights of the legislation include adding more than 260,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System; designating 165.5 miles of the Virgin River as a Wild and Scenic River; creating two National Conservation Areas in the county; selling up to 9,300 acres of public land; and designating a High Desert Off-Highway Vehicle Trail.

Bennett spokeswoman Tara Hendershott also noted that dozens of meetings with hundreds of people over the past five years brought "opposing viewpoints" to the table, which eventually produced the compromise bill.

"This process is an example of democracy in action," Hendershott said. "We've incorporated public input and the recommendations of Vision Dixie. While no group has received everything it wanted, every group has acknowledged parts it likes."

Van Dam's letter argues against selling off public lands, saying it would "only encourage large developments outside of the urban core causing sprawl."

Any money raised from those sales, however, should not be used for county-funded projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline, he added.

"We are in opposition to any provision that allows proceeds from public land sales be used to fund the Lake Powell pipeline," Van Dam said. "Public input is needed in local water development projects using a Vision Dixie-style process before funds or land is granted for the Lake Powell pipeline."

But Heyrend said there is no provision in the legislation that would specifically allow funds to go toward the Lake Powell pipeline project.

"There is no connection. We disagree with their interpretation on that point," she said. "This bill follows the Vision Dixie principles, and we feel really good about the way it has played out. There are a lot of groups that support this bill that didn't support it last time."

Hendershott said the 2008 bill received a "wide range of support, underscoring the need to act now."

Hearings on the bill were held in April before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, although no vote is scheduled for the bill at this time.


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