Enviros wary of 'Nevada-style' wilderness bill

Utah proposal includes public-lands sale, utility corridors

  • Spring runoff in the Navajo sandstone of Water Canyon on the edge of southwestern Utah's proposed Canaan Mountain Wilderness. Lawmakers want to permanently protect the 35,000-acre mesa, along with an additional 184,000 acres in Washington County, but only in exchange for public land sales, utility corridors and motorized-vehicle trails in other areas

    LIN ALDER
 

In the last four years, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has sponsored two bills that gave Nevada more than 1 million acres of new wilderness — along with utility corridors, motorized-vehicle trails, and public-land swaps and sales designed to accommodate urban growth. Now, Utah lawmakers are trying the same give-and-take approach, with mixed results.

In March, Utah’s Sen. Robert Bennett, R, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D, rolled out a draft bill for Washington County, in the southwestern part of the state. The bill would add 219,000 acres of wilderness and protect 170 miles of the Virgin River. It would also sell up to 25,000 acres of public land to give booming St. George more room to grow, designate motorized-vehicle trails and set aside corridors for road and water projects, including a pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George (HCN, 4/3/06: Pipeline and dam dreams).

"I think it’s a good bill," says Alan Gardner, a Washington County commissioner. "It looks at a bunch of different needs and doesn’t just take one issue and put it out there. It makes more sense to do it this way."

But Utah’s wilderness groups say it leaves out 70 percent of the county’s wilderness-quality lands, lumping most of the wilderness additions inside already-protected Zion National Park. They also oppose the land sales and corridor provisions, including a road through desert tortoise habitat.

Tellingly, though, the groups have not completely backed away from the bill. "This is a bad bill," says Suzanne Jones, southwest regional director of The Wilderness Society. "But we are more than interested in making it better if other parties are willing to make that happen."

The wilderness groups’ 9 million-acre, stand-alone Utah wilderness bill has stalled out in Congress, which has passed only nine wilderness bills since 2001. As a result, the groups face a tough decision: try to whittle down the trade-offs and boost the wilderness acres in Bennett’s bill, or fight it and risk no new wilderness at all.

Window dressing

Sen. Bennett has made it clear that he’s trying to follow in Harry Reid’s footsteps. "Everything we’ve done here is modeled after Nevada," Bennett told the Deseret Morning News in March. "If our legislation gets the same reaction as Nevada’s did, then it shouldn’t take much time to move it through."

Although wilderness groups had some problems with the Nevada bills — particularly the land sales and swaps and a water pipeline corridor for Las Vegas — they say that the two-year process leading up to the bills was inclusive, and geared toward letting stakeholders decide, as much as possible, what ended up in the legislation.

That’s in stark contrast to Utah’s process, they say. Two years ago, the office of then-Gov. Olene Walker, R, set up a half-dozen meetings in Washington County so that stakeholders could present their concerns; participants then submitted comments to Bennett’s office. County officials say that was adequate, but conservationists say the meetings fell far short of producing agreement.

"We were invited to negotiate on a land-use bill, and that never happened," says Lawson LeGate, the Sierra Club’s southwest representative. Further talks with Bennett’s staff failed to reveal any of the bill’s details, LeGate says. "Now it looks like we’re being used as window dressing."

Randy Johnson, the former Emery County commissioner who facilitated the meetings, sees it differently. "Everybody at the table understood that our main mission was to follow the model set up by Nevada. The environmental groups began to detach themselves when they saw that some compromise was going to be required to make this work."

Once burned

But a policy advisor to Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman’s campaign says the process has destroyed any hope for more Nevada-style bills in Utah. Jeff Durrant, an assistant geography professor at Brigham Young University, says the meetings were poorly organized by Gov. Walker’s administration.

Wilderness groups, he says, were badly misled. "(Walker’s office) just didn’t do what they outlined at the beginning. It would have been interesting to see if it could have worked, but it was just never given a chance. It will be years before (the groups) get lured back into something like that again."

Nearby Iron and Millard counties may have already borne that out. The counties are holding stakeholder talks and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R, has said he’s interested in writing a public-lands bill there, depending on how Bennett’s legislation fares. But wilderness groups have so far declined to participate, for fear, they say, of getting burned again.

Meanwhile, Bennett has said he’d like to introduce the Washington County bill early this summer after gathering public comment in a series of meetings. Wilderness groups are discussing the bill with the senator’s office, but they say it needs major changes before they’ll throw their support behind it.

The author is an HCN intern.

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