Another compromise plan falls flat
by Tim WestbyIn Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's State of the State address in January, the two-term Republican announced what he called an "unprecedented opportunity."
The 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 battle.
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.
The deal 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.
The outcry 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.
Good policy dictates getting school-trust lands out of the middle of sensitive lands with wilderness values whenever possible, he says.
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 tough.
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 watch.
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 bills.
Says Reberg, "We're glad that the governor is talking about preserving wilderness-quality lands."