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Utah lawmakers are angling to create two new state parks on federal lands, one at Little Sahara in Juab County and the other at Hole-in-the-Rock, the famous cleft in a cliff over the Colorado River that was successfully traversed by Mormon pioneers.
Mormon heritage groups would like to expand trekking operations here, but these efforts are thwarted by federal land agencies' 12-person limits on group sizes and a lack of camping and staging facilities. A new state park could solve these problems and promote economic development, according to bill sponsor Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem.
"There's an opportunity to create a multi-use area in that historically significant area for our state," Stratton said Tuesday at a hearing before the House Political Subdivisions Committee. "It would be revenue neutral for our state. This would all be consent by the Legislature."
With its three Democratic members voting against, the committee advanced HB63.
"It looks a little developmental and explorative," said Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-Salt Lake City. "It looks like all the steps proposed here can proceed in terms of the possibility of this happening without this act."
HB63 authorizes the Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation to acquire federal land in Garfield County near where the pioneer expedition cut the trail down a steep crevice. State officials might negotiate a lease or some other agreement with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management to operate a park.
The pioneer company which included 250 pioneers from Parowan, many of them children, as well as 1,000 head of livestock and 83 wagons dubbed the spot Hole-in-the-Rock, a name that has stuck to the historic trail that led from Escalante across what are now the Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments to Bluff.
The perilous six-month journey over the winter of 1879-80 is a signature achievement of Mormon settlement in southeastern Utah. No lives were lost and two babies were born on the trip that was supposed to have taken only six weeks.
The park would be associated with the Escalante Heritage Center now under development in Escalante on land donated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to former Mayor Jerry Taylor, now a Garfield County commissioner.
"We've already put $2 million into this project," Taylor told the committee Tuesday, adding that making it a state park would benefit Garfield County and Utah as a whole. But one environmental group looks on the idea with suspicion.
"Federal public lands should remain in federal hands," said Mathew Gross, media director with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Utah has a patchy track record in funding and managing its state parks. Luckily, the state of Utah doesn't have final say over this issue."
Stratton emphasized that the bill merely directs State Parks to "study the feasibility" of working with federal partners toward establishing a new park.
"I hope they would be receptive to improving and making the land more accessible, especially given the notion that it is a historical landmark," Stratton said. "There is frustration in the past because of a lack of resources."
Another new bill would establish a state park at Little Sahara, the sandy hills in Juab County popular with dune riders. Sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, HB95 also recommends designating the 9,000-acre Rockwell Outstanding Natural Area as a wilderness area, renamed in honor of the late congressman Bill Orton.
Both park proposals were introduced last session, but neither passed despite unanimous approval in the House.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.