Tribune Editorial: Preserving Utah, one piece at a time

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Hikers in the Narrows, Zion National Park, Wednesday May 6, 2015.

A strong argument could be made that with all the federal and state taxes we pay — supporting all those federal and state agencies that at least on paper have the responsibility of preserving public lands for future generations — there should be no need for private organizations to cobble together deals to fulfill that very function.

But the need does exist. So Utahns, and all Americans, are fortunate that outfits such as The Trust for Public Land are there.

Last week, that group announced that it had drawn from several public and private pots of money to raise $1.5 million and spend it on a plan to preserve access to the treasured Zion Narrows, a stunning 16-mile trail that straddles public and private land in and near Zion National Park.

The fragile nature of the territory already meant that access to the trail was restricted to a permit-only arrangement. But even that was threatened when the family that owned a part of the trail just outside the park boundaries had announced plans to put its property on the market.

Owners of that parcel, known as Simon Gulch, had expressed dismay that a price offered them by federal government to buy the land was far too low. Too low, members of the Bulloch family said, because the land’s value to the American people was far greater than it would be to ranchers, developers or any other private party that might bid.

The vision of “No trespassing” signs along the Zion Narrows was repulsive to just about everyone concerned. So The Trust for Public Land swung a $1.5 million deal to buy a conservation easement through the Bullochs’ land as well as cover administrative costs.

Contributors to the purchase include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program, the state of Utah’s LeRay McAllister Critical Land Conservation Fund, Washington County, the Federal Highway Administration and, to the tune of $360,000, private donors that included the National Park Foundation and George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.

There have been many such deals, in Utah and around the nation, over the years put together by groups such as the Trust for Public Land, National Park Foundation, Grand Canyon Trust, the Land Trust Alliance, the Nature Conservancy and others.

Some other not-so-good news from the same neck of the woods is word that Washington County, as it contributes to the preservation of the Zion Narrows, is also pushing the federal government to allow construction of a new highway through land that had been set aside as wildlife habitat. Habitat in the Red Cliffs Conservation Area that was specifically set aside in 1995 to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.

The protection of the land was not just for the benefit of one kind of animal. These things never are. Such creatures are what is known to the biologically literate as indicator species. If they are healthy, then that suggests that the rest of the local ecosphere is doing well, too.

If they aren’t, well, that is reason to worry that people, construction, traffic, off-road vehicles and all that other stuff are causing damage beyond the land’s ability to heal itself.

The county’s argument that another highway is needed to handle the area’s massive population growth only makes sense if the highway would, indeed, handle it. But more highways draw more development, which demand more highways, which draw more growth.

Some other, more sustainable, solution should be found. If, like the Zion Narrows, the Mojave desert tortoise is still there, we will know it worked.