Federal agencies grow leery of S. Utah land sale proposal
The Bush administration expressed reservations Thursday about key provisions of a bill, already opposed by environmental groups, aimed at shaping the explosive growth in Washington County.
The Interior Department voiced concerns over language in the bill directing the department to sell off up to 20,000 acres of land now under control of the Bureau of Land Management. And the White House budget office is not satisfied with limits placed on the $1 billion the sales could rake in.
"The Department of Interior supports the goals of the legislation, but opposes provisions that require lands to be sold, regardless of whether they have been identified for disposal," Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Chad Calvert told a House subcommittee. "Furthermore, the administration believes that all taxpayers should receive some benefit from the sale."
The bill would earmark 85 percent of the money from the land sales for conservation initiatives, but the White House Office of Management and Budget does not want its hands tied.
The administration hopes to work through the issues with the bill's sponsors, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, Calvert said.
Matheson pointed out that the bill divides the money using the same formula Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used in two similar Nevada bills. But Calvert said the White House budget office "would like to revisit that."
Matheson told a House Resources subcommittee that the rapid growth in the county - which includes St. George, the nation's fastest-growing city for the last five years - demands action.
"No good can come from more haphazard, uncontrolled growth," he said. "The secret of this beautiful area is out."
But secrecy is the problem, according to environmental groups opposing the bill. They say the comprehensive plan was crafted mostly by Bennett's staff in closed-door meetings, with little input from their groups.
Suzanne Jones, regional director for the Wilderness Society, said the legislation "will exacerbate and not solve the growth the region is currently facing."
She pointed to broad opposition from environmental groups, the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians, the Outdoor Industry Association, Taxpayers for Common Sense and others.
Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said the commission isn't thrilled with everything in the bill, either. For example, there is too much wilderness for the commission's liking. But members are willing to swallow that pill to get the legislation passed.
Backers of the bill remained hopeful it would pass this year, but working out the issues raised by the administration could take time, which is running out in this Congress. The bill still needs to be voted on by the full House committee and the House and move through the Senate.
"I think the hearing is mostly theater," said Pete Downing, Washington representative for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The sides are so far apart on any kind of agreement that a lot more time will be needed to flesh out the issues and really thoroughly review such a complex bill."
The federal and state governments own the vast majority of Washington County, with just 16 percent in private hands.
The bill directs the sale of up to 24,000 acres of BLM land in two phases. Calvert said the department has 4,000 acres that could be sold in the first phase, but may be unable to find another 20,000 acres for the second phase.
As the measure is written, 5 percent of the proceeds from the sales would go to Utah schools; 10 percent to public safety, transportation and water development, and the rest to federal conservation efforts in the area.
It would designate 165 miles of the Virgin River as the state's first Wild and Scenic River and permanently protect the 61,000 acre Red Cliffs Tortoise Reserve and establish a process to set up an off-road vehicle trail.
In 2004, then-Gov. Olene Walker started a process to solve Washington County's long-standing land management disputes by holding a series of meetings with diverse groups. But environmentalists complained the process was slanted against them.