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Lobbyists decry ‘hostage-taking’

But lawmakers defend efforts to force bill deals

SHARE Lobbyists decry ‘hostage-taking’

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists say Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon, R-Utah, have seized hostages — legislative hostages.

"That isn't quite the word I would use. It's a tad bit harsh," Hansen said.

But he acknowledges he has bottled up several bills that environmentalists want, hoping to force them into deals that would resurrect a bill to create a San Rafael National Conservation Area and also ensure passage of a controversial Utah West Desert land exchange bill.

"We're holding up everything until we work out something on San Rafael," Cannon said. "As the legislative year winds down, the other side needs to figure out how much they really want some of their priorities to pass."

Among bills that Hansen and Cannon are blocking, with the help of House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, is one to allow purchase of the Baca Ranch in New Mexico.

The 95,000-acre ranch has forested mountains, one of the world's largest collapsed volcano calderas, archaeological sites and one of the nation's largest elk herds.

"Taking the Baca Ranch hostage makes it an innocent victim of an antienvironment agenda" pushed by Hansen and Cannon in the Utah bills, said Dave Simon, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

"The Baca is among the nation's top conservation priorities right now, and the Utah members and their political allies will be to blame if this gem isn't protected immediately," he said.

Cannon said that among options being considered is tying the Baca Ranch and the San Rafael conservation area in the same bill, possibly with other projects, allowing San Rafael to piggyback on the more popular Baca proposal.

"I wouldn't mind a Baca Ranch-San Rafael bill," he said.

But Hansen said an attempt a few years ago to tie popular and unpopular proposals in an omnibus parks bill backfired. So he and others are looking at a wide variety of options on how to push the Utah bills now.

Still, he said, so many public lands bills are pending with a limited amount of time left in Congress this year, that some sort of packaging of bills is possible.

He said he has been looking for "appropriate vehicles" on which to tie key Utah bills or for deals that would allow them to somehow move separately.

"We are at the point of the session where we say, OK, what are your got-to-be's and what are my got-to-be's, and what can we work out?" he said.

Hansen and Cannon last month pulled their San Rafael bill off the floor after they lost votes on several amendments and just before it appeared the House would kill the bill outright amid opposition by environmentalists.

"That was just a skirmish," Hansen said. "There's more than one way to skin a cat."

The withdrawn bill would establish about a 1 million-acre national conservation area in the San Rafael Swell. It is backed by the Clinton administration. Environmentalists are upset it does not protect any formal wilderness there. Instead, it would set up a multiyear process to decide how to best manage the land.

The West Desert land exchange bill, also supported by the Clinton administration, would swap 106,000 acres of Utah school trust lands buried within Wilderness Study Areas for 106,000 acres of other federal lands in areas more amenable to development.

Some environmental groups oppose it, saying it could give Utah an unfair financial windfall and could lead to development at the entrance to Zion National Parks. The state would gain some tracts of federal land in that area through the proposed trade.

Hansen said that land-trade bill is his top priority for the rest of the year. It is needed to help fund Utah schools, he said

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