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BABBITT VOWS NO SURPRISES FOR CONSERVATION COMPLIANCE

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Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has promised no surprises to local officials and landowners who agree to comply with conservation plans. Washington County officials aren't convinced.

"We're telling landowners that a deal is a deal," Babbitt said during a telephone interview Thursday. "This `no-surprises' policy says if, in the course of development or land use, you invest money and land into saving species, we won't come back 10 years from now and say you have to pay more or give more."Washington County Commissioner Russ Gallian said he'd be "delighted" if the secretary's promises were true. But he claims they've heard another story from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is overseeing conservation efforts in the county for the endangered desert tortoise.

"They told us the exact opposite," he said.

County, state and city officials have struggled with the desert tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan, which they say is overly restrictive and ties up too much land.

But Babbitt is the boss, and he said the new assurance policy is in response to complaints from private, state and municipal landowners who worry federal officials will come back with additional demands after landowners have already made concessions.

"We`ll work with state, municipal and private landowners to set the rules," Babbitt said. "This assurance policy makes it clear that we won't change those rules in the middle of the game."

Bill Mader, HCP administrator for Washington County, said he thinks the new policy is a good idea for everyone.

"From what I heard about the secretary's speech, I think he's trying to be fair and open with the entire community, including the landowners," he said.

"Our point is a simple one," Babbitt said. "If we've made a deal, and if it's being implemented according to the criteria set forth in that plan, we`re not going to be asking for more money or more land."