Washington County lands bill may be the wilderness model

Compromise » Obama signs legislation that includes both wilderness and development.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Decades of bitter fighting over Washington County's rugged lands ended Monday when President Barack Obama signed a sweeping conservation package, including designating thousands of acres in southern Utah as wilderness, protecting endangered species and giving cities space to grow.

Now just about every county in southern Utah wants its own legislation that would create a clear land-use policy supported by environmental activists, developers, recreationalists, miners and local officials.

"Having set the template for the way it ought to be done, I would very much like to take it from just the one county and see if we can't find a sensible resolution throughout all of Utah," said Sen. Bob Bennett, the lead sponsor of the Washington County lands bill.

Bennett, a Utah Republican, stood over Obama's shoulder at a White House ceremony as the president heralded the 2 million acres in several states protected by the package, which is a combination of 170 separate bills.

The Washington County provision makes 256,000 acres off limits to development or energy exploration, while letting the government sell 5,000 to 9,000 acres of non-sensitive land to developers around cities such as St. George.

Such deals are not unique to Utah. Counties in Nevada have made similar compromises, and the bill Obama signed Monday contains agreements in Idaho and California.

"It really does feel like a wave of possibility and even optimism about being able to do bills like Washington County has swept throughout the country," said Jerry Greenberg of The Wilderness Society.

If that's the case, Beaver and Piute counties in Utah want to be next.

"We would like to solve this so we don't spend all of our time arguing about these things," said Beaver County Commissioner Chad Johnson. "Let's get them solved and move on."

They've hired Randy Johnson, a former Emery County commissioner who has become the go-to guy in negotiating deals with environmental groups. He is also working with Emery, Millard and Juab counties on land plans that may turn into similar bills. Newly elected Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, plans to introduce the Beaver-Piute bill in the House in the next few months, as long as county leaders and environmentalists back it.

"We are not going to introduce a bill that would be met with resistance by either party," said Chaffetz's chief of staff Justin Harding.

Agreement on such a bill is much more likely after the Washington County bill, said Johnson, who believes it has placed land use negotiations "miles ahead of where we have been in the past."

It shows compromise, while it may be tough, is possible. It also provides a technical framework. No longer do lawyers need to quibble over the exact language. Now, the interested parties can focus on the bigger picture -- how many acres to preserve, what land can be mined and where should new roads be built.

"That's how Washington County has changed the environment," Johnson said.

That doesn't mean any future land bills will be quick or easy. Johnson, Bennett and Greenberg know that each county will have its own unique issues to deal with, which will take time and patience. But all three expect less animosity than in years past.

"When you start from where we are now, which is a place of success and a belief it can work, it creates a whole different atmosphere," said Greenberg. "It makes all the difference in the world."


Bill also includes:

» A measure allowing the Turnabout Ranch in Escalante to buy 25 acres of federal land, included in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument because of a surveying error.

» A Bountiful land swap, trading 1,680 acres of city land to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for a 220-acre parcel near city limits for a gun range and aqueduct.

» A trade of 120 acres of Brian Head land more suitable for camping for 120 acres of a Boy Scout camp more suitable for skiing.

» A proposal allowing Park City to buy 108.5 acres of federal land to use as green space.

What the lands bill does:

» Protects 256,000 acres in Washington County as wilderness, including land within Zion National Park.

» Creates the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, creating a 62,000-acre area to protect the endangered desert tortoise.

» Designates 166 miles of the Virgin River as a Wild and Scenic River, the first in Utah's history.

» Allows federal government to sell non-sensitive lands to developers to help St. George continue to grow.