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San Juan County wilderness deal moves on without sponsor

Published April 21, 2011 4:05 pm

Preservation • County keeps working after Bennett's ouster.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

San Juan County's wilderness bill negotiations, thought dead or dying last year when Utah Republicans booted former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett from office, are on track to yield a compromise this fall, a lead negotiator for the county said Thursday.

The single-county process, modeled on a deal in Washington County, was Bennett's project and enjoyed the use of his staff. But former San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens said the county is pressing on with talks involving land users and wilderness advocates and has commitments from the state's congressional delegation to back it. A bill could be ready for the Senate by September, he said at a meeting of the Governor's Balanced Resource Council, a statewide advisory group on which he serves.

He singled out The Wilderness Society as a productive partner in talks with the county about which lands to preserve and which to open for development.

"Their vocabulary is not limited to a two-letter word: 'No,' " Stevens said.

Wilderness Society Utah Director Julie Mack, also on the governor's council, agreed the compromise continues, though the county has not yet released any acreage proposals.

The Washington County deal took years to reach, with more politicking after the first draft of a bill reached Congress. Whatever hits Congress this fall could likewise trigger more talks, instead of ending them.

"The hope," Mack said, "is that [the county's] proposal would be something we could at least build upon."

Pat Shea, a former U.S. Bureau of Land Management director who serves on the governor's council, said he would not expect a bill to pass until after the 2012 election.

Negotiators are identifying lands that Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration could swap with the BLM before designating new wilderness areas, Stevens said.

For instance, SITLA holds a number of blocks in southern San Juan County, east of Glen Canyon, that are "solid rock" and of little value for mining or grazing. Mack agreed that those lands are good wilderness candidates and should be swapped.

bloomis@sltrib.com