In Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's State of the State address in January, the two-term Republican announced what he called an "unprecedented opportunity."
opportunity was a huge land swap of state and federal lands in the
western part of the state - a deal that Leavitt said was the first
step in resolving Utah's long-running wilderness
The proposal, said Leavitt, was "the
first time a governor, Interior secretary and congressional
delegation have been this close to agreement. This is the moment."
The state had agreed to give the Bureau of Land
Management about 118,000 acres of land stuck in the middle of
wilderness study areas. The BLM would give Utah 127,000
ripe-for-development acres near small West Desert towns in need of
an economic boost. Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
hoped that county officials would then throw their support behind a
wilderness bill for the West Desert.
flopped. County commissioners called the exchange a double-edged
sword and balked at its ties to wilderness. Environmental groups,
such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the West Desert
wilderness bill protected too little.
from both sides killed the bill, and Leavitt is now trying to
salvage the land exchange. On May 4, he announced a scaled-down
trade of 175 parcels of state school-trust land - 105,000 acres -
for 107,000 acres of BLM land.
"The issues around
getting wilderness are big, complex and take a lot of time. (The
exchange) is still worth doing, even if the wilderness bill never
moves," says Brad Barber, a Leavitt aide.
policy dictates getting school-trust lands out of the middle of
sensitive lands with wilderness values whenever possible, he
Allen Freemyer, aide to Utah Republican
Rep. Jim Hansen, says his boss "fully supports' the exchange,
although he acknowledges that pushing a bill through Congress with
so little time left in the current session will be
If Congress signs off on the swap, Utah
schools could see a boost. The lands acquired by the state will
become school-trust lands, which are managed to bring in money for
public schools. Money from the sale and lease of trust lands goes
into a trust fund, which currently stands at about $350 million.
Leavitt says he wants the fund to hit $1 billion on his
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
thinks the smaller trade is a good thing, says Mike Reberg, the
group's communications director. While SUWA did not play a role in
deciding which lands would be traded, Reberg says the group
generally supports land exchanges - as long as they're not attached
to what he calls "piecemeal" wilderness
Says Reberg, "We're glad that the governor
is talking about preserving wilderness-quality lands."