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WASHINGTON - As opponents to a major Washington County land-use bill urged Utah Sen. Bob Bennett on Thursday to go slow with his legislation, behind the scenes Bennett and the top Senate Democrat planned a late push to get their lands bills passed by year's end.

Bennett's bill seeks to shape the explosive growth in Washington County, the fifth-fastest growing county in the country.

It does so by selling off up to 24,300 acres of federally owned land and defining boundaries for highways, utility corridors and wilderness areas.

Bennett has virtually Krazy-Glued his Washington County lands bill to similar legislation pushed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid for White Pine County, Nev., and the senators hope to use their combined clout to pass the measures.

While Wilderness Society Vice President Jerry Greenberg praised Reid's legislation to shape land management in Nevada as a model of collaborative planning, he panned Bennett's bill modeled after Reid's as short on conservation, long on development and limited in its public input.

A push is likely within the next few weeks to attach both bills to one of several spending packages Congress is trying to pass in a late-year flurry. When Democrats take over Congress in January, it's less likely the Utah bill would pass.

Opponents urged the senators and the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests to go slow on the Washington County bill and allow more public involvement before revisiting it next year.

"The bill falls short of truly protecting our public lands and balancing the needs of the region," Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, said in his testimony to the subcommittee on behalf of the Outdoor Industry Association. "Our recommendation is that the bill be withdrawn and reworked to allow for more public review and improvements."

Greenberg said the Washington County bill had inadequate wilderness protection, left out many of the ecologically sensitive areas, and sets arbitrary mandates on land sales.

Bennett has expressed his distaste for tacking legislation onto spending bills, but said there is no reason for delay and he and Reid will get their legislation moving any way they can.

"There isn't anything we would learn next year that we don't already know," Bennett said.

He said the Washington County bill is the result of a two-year public process including anyone who wanted to participate. "Some have chosen not to and then have complained they have been frozen out," Bennett said.

Thursday's committee hearing clears an obstacle to attaching the Utah and Nevada bills to a spending bill.

Senate rules won't allow such a move unless legislation has had a hearing.

"Utah needs this bill," said Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner. "The combative nature of the Utah public lands discussion demands that something be done to take a good first step. This legislation is the best effort to come out of our state in three decades. To continue to do nothing in the face of the natural resource challenges we face would be irresponsible."

Both Bennett's bill and Reid's bill would direct the federal government to sell off public land and designate thousands of acres of wilderness areas - about 544,000 in the Nevada bill and 219,725 in the Bennett bill, most of it already protected in Zion National Park.

Opponents to both bills primarily criticize provisions to require the federal government to sell public lands, which they say would encourage cities to spread and sprawl.

Reid complained that now, in White Pine County, it is impossible to sprawl because the government owns 95 percent of the county and there is no private land to build on.

In Washington County, Bennett told him, the 24,300 acres of land sales envisioned by his bill, would increase private land ownership from 16 percent to 18 percent.

"Well, that's outrageous as far as I'm concerned," Reid said sarcastically.

Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Chad Calvert reiterated concerns he had voiced in a House hearing about the Washington County bill, primarily where more than $1 billion in anticipated revenues from the land sales will end up.

Under the Bennett bill, 85 percent of the proceeds would be earmarked for conservation initiatives and other projects in Washington County, but the White House budget office objects to those restrictions.

The Reid bill has similar language, as have two other land-use acts Congress passed governing Clark and Lincoln counties.

* If the Washington County land bill gets attached to a spending bill and approved by the Senate, that measure would go to a conference committee. If the committee doesn't strip it out, the entire bill would face what essentially would be a rubber stamp vote in both chambers.

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