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Know the West

Beehive state may get new wilderness — and more


Wilderness advocates in Utah have long butted heads with rural county commissioners and the state’s conservative congressional delegation. Last May, in an attempt to resolve the impasse, then-Utah Gov. Olene Walker announced county-by-county discussions on land use, including potential new wilderness areas (HCN, 6/21/04: Lame-duck governor moves deadlocked wilderness debate).

Now, the state may see its first new wilderness designations since 1984 — but they’ll come tied to public-lands development. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says he is drafting an "omnibus" public-lands bill based on land-use discussions in Washington County, in the state’s southwestern corner. That bill, modeled on two successful wilderness-and-economic-development bills in Nevada, will likely propose several new wilderness areas in and around Zion National Park. It will also authorize auctions of federal land for development and establish a right-of-way for a water pipeline from Lake Powell to the rapidly growing community of St. George (HCN, 9/13/04: A water-and-wilderness bill kicks up dust in Nevada).

"This is an economic plan as much as anything," says Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner, although he concedes that wilderness will play an important part in the bill. "The wilderness issue has been out there, and we want to get that behind us and get on with life."

Peter Downing, legislative director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, remains cautious about Bennett’s proposal, saying that the draft bill "will be the beginning of negotiations.

"It’s clear that there are some pretty significant differences" between conservation groups, off-road vehicle users and the county government, Downing says.