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Spring Creek Canyon purchase put on hold

2 would-be buyers wait for decision on road right of way

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A dispute over whether off-road vehicles should have access to Spring Creek Canyon near Zion National Park will not be settled by a state agency, at least not now.

The Board of Trustees of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration on Thursday postponed a decision on selling 91 acres of trust land to either the town of Kanarraville or the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Kanarraville officials want to buy the land to ensure motorized access into the canyon. SUWA wants to buy it to prevent vehicles from potentially damaging the ecosystem at the mouth of the canyon.

But access to the canyon road is in dispute, and the board agreed it should not sell the property to anyone until that issue is settled.

Kanarraville and Iron County officials hope to secure rights to the road through negotiations with the federal Bureau of Land Management, but that process could take months, if not years.

"That's my back yard. I know how the people feel about it," said board member John Harja, who offered the motion to postpone a decision until a more definite assessment of the land's value and a federal decision on the road issue are available.

Iron County Commissioner Dennis Stowell, Kanarraville Mayor Randy Williams and SUWA attorney Liz Thomas came away from the meeting without the decision they had hoped for. But the two sides expressed willingness to hold further discussions independent of the board, and accepted the decision as an understandable one given the circumstances.

The unanimous decision means motorized access to the canyon will remain blocked for the time being.

"It's the status quo," Thomas said. "I think it leaves us all in a lurch not knowing. Kanarraville faces unknowns and we face unknowns.

"We just want to see it protected, and we just see motorized access as an impact to the area."

Earlier this year Kanarraville offered the trust lands administration $1,000 an acre for the 91-acre strip leading into the canyon, but SUWA countered with a $1,250-per-acre offer and was willing to increase that offer Thursday.

Thomas said SUWA likely would drop its attempt to purchase the land if the town is successful in gaining right of way to the road.

"If there's a right of way, it settles the issues," said trust lands administration spokesman Dave Hebertson. "If there's not a right of way, it settles the issue."

Williams said the town was willing to compromise on access to the canyon by allowing only all-terrain vehicles but not permitting pickup trucks.

However, "We're not willing to compromise to nothing — no access," Stowell said.

The 91 acres are included in two state-owned parcels, totaling more than 1,200 acres, which are part of wilderness study areas managed by the BLM.

A road into the canyon was washed out in the 1970s and never replaced, but in 1999 an unidentified person illegally bulldozed a road through both state and BLM land. The town and county believe their residents have a historical claim to use the right of way where the new road was cut and will make that argument to the federal government.

Williams said local residents simply want to preserve their historical access to the canyon for hunting, wood-gathering, picnicking, hiking and other recreational uses.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com