Lawmakers push Utah land-use bill

Washington County: Environmental groups object to specific parts, say they were left out
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Two Utah members of Congress said Monday they will push this year for congressional passage of their Washington County land-use bill despite continued objections of environmental groups

U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board he was “mildly optimistic” about getting the bill enacted before a new Congress is sworn in in January. The bill would, among other things, set aside wilderness, designate Utah's first-ever wild and scenic rivers and free up to 24,300 acres of federal land for sale.

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, emphasized the Washington County bill would work hand in hand with county-led land planning to address sprawl and growth problems that have come to a head, with Washington County identified as the fastest growing county in the nation in the past five years. “On the ground, things are happening,” said Matheson. “And it ain't good.”

Unconvinced the bill's good points outweigh the bad, Utah conservation advocates vowed to do their best to derail it. As they have since the Bennett-Matheson concept was unveiled last spring, they complained about being excluded from the bargaining table and about specific parts of the bill.

“We are alarmed enough about it to use whatever resources we have available to stop it, assuming we are not able to persuade them to make necessary changes,” said Lawson LeGate of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance called the bill “a detrimental precedent” and promised “to take this fight to Congress.”

On Monday, the bill's congressional sponsors and the Washington County Commission detailed their support for the bill in separate conversations with the editorial board.

“Why anyone would oppose this is beyond me," said County Commissioner James Eardley, insisting the bill would help manage current growth, not promote more. "It's like mother and apple pie.”

Matheson and Bennett said they had been taking input from all interested parties since unveiling the idea last spring.

New refinements include wording that allows no more than 24,300 acres of federal land to be sold to raise money primarily for conservation programs. Some 4,300 acres is already on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's disposal list, and any other acreage will be identified in the county land plan over the next couple of years.

Supporters indicated the bill bows to environmental groups in several ways. The Interior Department now has more power to safeguard cultural resources. And two big projects will be scrapped, the Beaver Dam Narrows water project and the Northern Corridor Bypass Route, which would have bisected protected Desert Tortoise habitat.

County Commissioner Alan D. Gardner said: “We don't feel like they were left out of the process at all.”