Bennett Introduces Washington County Land Bill

Date:   April 11, 2008
Contact:   Tara Hendershott, 202-224-5444, Washington, D.C.

Bennett Introduces Washington County Land Bill

Legislation Receives Support of Key Conservation Groups

Washington, D.C. – Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) today introduced legislation that addresses the critical land management needs in Utah’s Washington County and enjoys a broad base of local and national support.

“After five years at the table with all interested stakeholders, Congressman Matheson and I have produced a bill that successfully strikes a balance between conservation and growth in Washington County,” said Bennett. “Parties on all sides of this debate have repeatedly told me it would be impossible to broker a deal on this emotional issue which, for decades, has caused people to dig in their heels. The persistence we’ve applied now appears to be paying off as our bill has gained extremely diverse support and a very good chance of passing.”

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who will introduce the legislation in the House of Representatives later this month, said, “This new bill shows that bipartisan effort—with all interested stakeholders—can resolve long-running contentious public land issues in a way that protects the land, the economy, and the way of life in Washington County. It’s a real breakthrough in my state, following on the heels of the historic Vision Dixie planning process, where the past has been marked by a lot of rhetoric, but not much progress. I am proud of our effort and I’m proud of the collaboration at the local, state and federal level.”

The Washington County Growth & Conservation Act of 2008 was modeled after similar legislation authored by Nevada Senators Harry Reid (D) and John Ensign (R) that addressed growth in Nevada’s Clark and Lincoln Counties. The Reid-Ensign bills were approved unanimously in the Senate and House in 2006.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “I am pleased to see so much progress has been made on this legislation. I appreciate Senator Bennett and Congressman Matheson’s hard work on this bill.”

“The Nevada land bills served as blueprints for this legislation and I am pleased to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in this effort,” added Bennett.

Bennett and Matheson are also proud to have received the endorsement of several environmental and conservation groups.

William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society said, “The Wilderness Society is pleased with the strong protection the Washington County Growth & Conservation Act would give to many of southwest Utah’s most spectacular wilderness areas, including Cougar Canyon, Doc’s Pass, and Black Ridge. This bill is a real improvement over last year’s version. We hope that there is now an opportunity to move beyond the polarization over wilderness we have seen for many years and achieve something lasting and meaningful. We continue to have concerns about other aspects of the bill and look forward to working with Senator Bennett on those issues. I would like to thank Senator Bennett for his leadership and efforts to get us to this point.”

“As revised, the Washington County Growth & Conservation Act of 2008 has been greatly improved from the 2006 version and has earned our support,” said Dave Livermore, The Nature Conservancy’s Utah State Director. “If passed, this new bill will go a long way toward protecting the key natural areas which make Washington County such a special place.”

To address the needs of one of the fastest growing counties in the country, this legislation is the result of over five years of work including extensive public comment, recommendations from Vision Dixie and data compiled by the Washington County Land Use Planning Process and Working Group. Since the original introduction of the bill in July 2006, numerous suggestions have been received, resulting in significant changes and additional support.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) also endorsed the bill. NPCA’s southwest regional director, David Nimkin, said, “The potential land sales included in this new and improved bill will help generate critical resources, acquire in-holdings, and protect lands adjacent to Zion National Park. We are pleased that the bill requires careful public review for land disposition and incorporates the key principles of the Vision Dixie community planning process.”

“I am grateful to members of the conservation community who have been willing to keep the dialogue open and just as importantly, keep it civil,” continued Bennett. “I am particularly appreciative of the contributions of the Vision Dixie planning process and the public comments that have helped improve this legislation.”

Jim Eardley, chairman of the Washington County Commission, said, “This legislation is the result of a long and intensive collaborative effort and represents historic progress in Utah public land deliberations. While there are some elements of the bill with which we are not entirely comfortable, the overall result is a product which not only provides substantial conservation for our special public lands, but also tangible benefits to the citizens of the County as we face the intense pressure of growth and expansion.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the legislation, added, “I believe that Sen. Bennett, working hand-in-glove with local leaders, has crafted comprehensive legislation that balances the needs of the region’s families, the environment they cherish, and the economy that sustains them. I am a proud cosponsor of his bill.”

Highlights of the Washington County Growth & Conservation Act of 2008 include:

· Addition of 264, 394 acres of land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. This will increase the percentage of wilderness acreage in the county from 3.5 percent to 20.5 percent.
· Designation of 165.5 miles of the Virgin River in and adjacent to Zion National Park under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the first such designation in Utah history.
· Creation of two National Conservation Areas in Washington County—Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area—to provide long-term protection for the desert tortoise and recreational opportunities on nearly 140,000 acres.
· Disposal of non-environmentally sensitive public land currently identified in the St. George Field Office Resource Management Plan, which represents less than 0.3 percent of lands in Washington County. This legislation authorizes an additional 5,000 acres, which could be sold only after being identified through the resource management plan process, with full public involvement, and in accordance with the Vision Dixie principles.
· Enhanced management of Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use through a comprehensive travel management plan prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As part of this comprehensive plan, BLM will designate the High Desert OHV Trail and identify alternatives for a northern transportation route.

Changes to the bill from the 2006 version include:

· Addition of more than 123,000 acres of permanently protected land.
· Removal of utility corridor designations including the Lake Powell pipeline and a northern transportation corridor.
· Reduction of land disposal from approximately 24,300 acres to 9,052 acres.
· Removal of rights-of-way designations, including Ft. Pearce and Cougar Canyon. The bill does not remove the two designations already identified in BLM’s resource management plan.
· Development of a county-wide comprehensive travel plan prepared by BLM, which will require BLM to designate the High Desert OHV Trail and identify alternatives for a northern transportation route.

The bill will now be sent to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources where it will be the subject of hearings.




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