New route to end Utah's wilderness stalemate

Can one of the West's most anti-federal lands lawmakers broker a mega-wilderness deal in the Beehive state?

  • The proposed Indian Creek Wilderness, on the east side of Canyonlands National Park, where San Juan County has proposed a new ATV right of way.

    James W. Kay
  • Utah Rep. Rob Bishop displays a map showing federal land ownership, during a 2012 news conference at the Utah State Capitol to laud the Legislature for its effort to take control of millions of acres of federal lands. Sen. Orrin Hatch looks on.

    Steve Griffin/Salt Lake Tribune
  • Hiking in the proposed White River Wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • An Anadarko drill rig in the Greater Natural Buttes area of the Uintah Basin.

    Anadarko Petroleum Co.
  • Off-road enthusiasts gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City in 2011 for the Take Back Utah rally, where Gov. Gary Herbert called for renewed vigor in the fight to keep broad access to Utah's public lands.

    Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News
  • Dust rises near Factory Butte, an area just outside the San Rafael Swell that's a favorite of off-roaders and that SUWA and others hope to get designated as wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • Houses creep into the foothills around St. George, Utah. Washington County commissioners used wilderness lands as a bargaining chip to win more ground for subdivisions and shopping malls.

    George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Canyoneering in White Canyon, a proposed wilderness area in the San Juan-Greater Canyonlands part of eastern Utah.

    James W. Kay

Page 2

What convinced the county commissioners, traditionally hostile to wilderness protection, to come to the table? It was all that growth. Inspired by a similar deal in Nevada, they realized that they could use wilderness as a bargaining chip to win more ground for subdivisions and shopping malls.

But the path forward was anything but smooth. The original Washington County lands bill, championed by Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and introduced in the House by Utah's token Democrat, Jim Matheson, was a developer's dream. It would have protected approximately 220,000 acres of wilderness, including much of what was proposed for the county by SUWA. In return, roughly 24,000 acres of federal lands could be sold off for development. The bill would have also laid the groundwork for a new highway that would cut through endangered desert tortoise habitat, connecting St. George's booming western suburbs to Interstate 15. And 8 percent of the proceeds from land sales would have gone to the local water conservancy district to fund a long-dreamed-of pipeline to pull water from Lake Powell.

The bill outraged locals who dreaded more uncontrolled sprawl as well as environmentalists and their friends in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Reid wouldn't let it happen," says Alan Gardner, a rancher and longtime county commissioner who has sold ground to developers, with obvious bitterness. "What was good for Nevada couldn't be good for anywhere else."

It would be more than a year before Bennett and Matheson would take their bill back to Washington, D.C. In that time, Washington County would go through a major strategic planning process called Vision Dixie, which involved extensive public input and revealed that most locals supported managed growth and opposed selling off federal lands. Bennett also met with conservation groups and made a series of concessions to win their support.

By the time it was reintroduced in 2008, the bill included more than 260,000 acres of wilderness, a substantial increase from the original, as well as "wild and scenic" designation for 165 miles of the Virgin River in and around Zion National Park, and the creation of two new national conservation areas. Rights of way for the highway and Lake Powell pipeline were dropped and federal land sales were cut to approximately 9,000 acres.

The new bill won the support of national conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy and the National Parks Conservation Association, but SUWA and a local group called Citizens for Dixie's Future still opposed it. It failed a second time, and the county made yet more concessions before it finally passed in 2009 as part of an omnibus lands bill.

Looking back, County Commissioner Gardner has mixed feelings. "Had we ever contemplated the amount of wilderness and some of the boundaries we ended up with, we never would have gotten started," he says. "The big thing the county got was resolution."

Conservationists remain similarly ambivalent: "The outcome of all this was a good wilderness bill," SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene said in a letter published in High Country News. "But the bill wasn't the result of a consensus-based process, and it shouldn't serve as a model."

To date, none of the available 9,000 acres of federal land has been sold: The real estate market imploded just as the bill finally passed. But county officials are optimistic that, once the market rebounds, the land will sell, and St. George will resume expanding.

More than anything, the Washington County deal showed local officials around Utah that wilderness designation could serve as a lever: If they were clever enough, they could use it to pry things out of environmentalists' tight fists.