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2 Utah towns call for land-trade ban

Springdale and Rockville want U-9 protected

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Two southern Utah towns have signed a petition along with more than 100 environmental groups from across the nation asking three presidential candidates to support a moratorium on all future land trades involving the federal government — land trades that critics and government investigators say are fraught with abuses.

The towns of Rockville and Springdale on the western edge of Zion National Park have joined a chorus of chapters of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Earth First! in calling on GOP candidate George W. Bush, Democratic candidate Al Gore and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to support a moratorium, at least until the nation's current lands policy can be reformed.

The driving force behind the towns' activism, however, is not necessarily a national concern over wasted tax dollars but opposition to a land exchange bill pending before the U.S. Senate that could lead to development along U-9, the scenic highway leading from I-15 near St. George into Zion National Park.

"It is very important to us that the character of the land not be lost to overdevelopment and that open space is protected," Rockville Mayor David Hatfield said.

The Springdale City Council agrees. "We believe the scenic corridor needs to be retained in its natural condition as a prelude and introduction to the canyon itself," City Manager Glen Hill said.

Zion National Park and the town of Virgin have also expressed support for preserving the corridor, but neither has signed the petition.

"For the sake of our public lands and the irreplaceable legacy they represent, we ask you to take definitive action to either bring reform to the land-exchange process or eliminate them altogether," the petition states. It also calls for a moratorium on all land exchanges initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior and Congress.

The petition, sponsored by the Western Lands Exchange Project in Seattle, comes after an audit by the General Accounting Office found widespread abuses in land trades. The audit specifically identified one Utah land exchange in the St. George area as an example of abuses that have ripped off taxpayers.

Critics have also targeted massive exchanges of isolated sections of state school trust lands within proposed wilderness areas for blocks of developable federal lands elsewhere. One of those blocks the state would receive under the legislation is the LaVerkin Twist lands at the western edge of the scenic corridor.

The lands are about 15 miles from Rockville and neighboring Springdale, but they are close enough to be a concern if they were to be sold to developers.

"In our minds, any development along that corridor is a concern," Hatfield said.

The towns along the corridor first passed resolutions in 1996 opposing development along the corridor. The decision to sign onto the moratorium petition is simply a reiteration of those earlier positions, officials said.

"People here (in Rockville) want to keep the corridor as it always has been," Hatfield said. "In Rockville, we have no commercial zones other than some bed and breakfasts and cottage industries, and that's just the way we want to keep it."

The Utah land bill (HR4759) is specifically targeted by the petition as an example of "exchanges engineered by members of Congress for powerful constituents. They often entail no environmental analysis or public participation, robbing citizens of their rights to evaluate the equity and environmental impact of a project."

Also signing the petition were several Utah environmental groups, including the Utah Environmental Congress, the Glen Canyon Action Network and Save Our Canyons.

E-MAIL: spang@desnews.com