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Many state lawmakers worry conservation bill is big land grab

But funds it would bring are needed, resource chief says

SHARE Many state lawmakers worry conservation bill is big land grab

State lawmakers are wary of federal legislation that would pour money into conservation efforts to protect open space, calling it one of the biggest federal land grabs.

"It's a step toward socialism," Rep. Brad Johnson, R-Aurora, said Wednesday.

He was referring to the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 2000, known as CARA. It would set aside $45 billion over 15 years in matching funds to buy parks and open spaces, pay for wildlife protection and restore environmentally damaged coastal areas.

The Utah Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Wednesday was briefed on the bill, now before the U.S. Senate.

If the legislation passes the Senate and is signed by the president, Utah would stand to gain about $40 million the first year. A chunk of that could be used to help benefit parks and wildlife, explained Kathleen Clark, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources.

That money is sorely needed to catch up on a backlog of needed park improvements, Clark said.

It also could be used for farmland protection, she said, but quickly added that it's not the state's attempt to acquire more land. "We want to work with willing sellers and look at opportunities to preserve pieces of property."

Still, few committee members liked the bill in its present form because they don't trust the federal government.

"I don't think it's wise to allow the federal government to acquire lands," said Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, who testified before the committee. And, "no, I don't trust the federal government," he told them.

Ure's primary concern was competition. The government could offer more money for a ranch than another rancher could, he said.

But the legislation is not about taking people's land away from them, said Rep. Mary Carlson, D-Salt Lake City.

"You don't have to sell the land if you don't want to," Carlson told Ure. The intent, she added, is to put money into parks and recreation and habitat protection.

"I don't understand how it has now become (perceived as) a federal land grab bill," she said.

Because the bill allows for condemnation of private property, lawmakers fear the federal government would obtain private land through "eminent domain" because they are deemed to serve an essential public need.

Many legislators characterized the federal government as the "bogeyman," because of land deals gone bad.

"I've seen the bogeyman face-to-face," said Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch.

E-MAIL: donna@desnews.com