The powerful Outdoor Industry Association has weighed in against a controversial growth plan for Washington County, just days before a congressional subcommittee is scheduled to take up the matter.
"While [the association] appreciates the efforts of many to craft protection for this deserving area, we are concerned that the bill falls short of the true protection needed," said the association in a news release.
The association, which holds its retailers convention twice a year in Salt Lake City, also argues that the land plan could hurt the health of Americans by closing trails and open space that can be used for outdoor physical activity.
"The legislation would sell off up to 25,000 acres of federal land surrounding St. George, increasing urban sprawl and greatly decreasing close-to-home recreation opportunities," the association says.
It wants the bill withdrawn pending more public hearings.
Sponsored by Utah's Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006 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.
Matheson has emphasized that the bill would complement county-led land planning to address sprawl and growth problems in Washington County, which was identified as the fastest-growing county in the nation in the past five years.
The county commission supports the bill, and Commissioner Alan Gardner noted Sunday that a representative of the industry association participated on the committee that produced the legislation. That person approved of the process and the result, and the association initially took a neutral stand on the issue, he said.
Yet, Utah conservation advocates such as the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance say that the bill's bad points outweigh its good points, and they have vowed to derail it.
"It sounds like [Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] got to them and they're caving in to pressure," Gardner said Sunday from the Las Vegas airport, where he was waiting for a flight to Washington, D.C., to discuss the bill Thursday in a House subcommittee. "This [opposition] does more harm than good."
Amy Roberts, a government affairs director for the association, on Sunday denied it's bowing to pressure from any group.
"Our board was concerned the bill was not balanced enough," she said. "We look at wilderness issues around the country - not just in Utah."
Roberts said the legislation could make it more difficult for county residents to use public lands, because development could move access farther from their homes.
A recent study by the association claims the outdoor recreation industry infuses the U.S. economy with $730 billion a year.
Utah receives more than $30 million annually from the trade shows the group sponsors.
In the past, the association has used that economic muscle by threatening to pull out of the state when it disagreed with environmental decisions by Utah officials.
In 2004, when then-Gov. Mike Leavitt made a deal with the Interior Department to remove wilderness protection from 6 million acres of federal land in the state, the association threatened to move its trade shows to a state more sympathetic with environmental concerns shared by association members.
The organization decided to stay only after Leavitt created a task force to look into association concerns.
Gardner, the Washington County commissioner, said Sunday that the public has been commenting on the proposal since it was unveiled in March, and that people can still send their opinions to the offices of Bennett and Matheson.
"Comment period on the bill is not over until the bill passes," Gardner said.
The Outdoor Industry Association's complaints
In addition to the potential loss of public lands close to communities, the Outdoor Industry Association's other concerns include:
l The bulk of the 200,000 acres proposed for wilderness designation is already protected within Zion National Park, while wilderness-quality Bureau of Land Management property remains unprotected.
l The legislation would remove Wilderness Study Area protection from nearly 15 square miles of BLM lands, including approximately 10 square miles of spectacular red rock Canaan Mountain.
l The legislation fails to outline a process for developing and funding the implementation of long-needed travel-management plans for these lands.