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Utah letting green-space effort fall by the wayside

Parents understand how frustrating it is to deal with children who pass through fads. One month they have to take clarinet lessons. The next month they want to quit and take up speedskating.

But what do you do when state lawmakers can't seem to stick with something?

Barely seven years ago, the big topic on the minds of many Utahns was growth. Gov. Mike Leavitt had convened a Growth Summit to discuss issues such as transportation and open space. It was a "mighty oak of an idea," some said, that had grown from an acorn some months before.

Today that mighty oak is being hacked and whacked by so many little hatchets that it is almost unrecognizable. During this legislative session, growth is no longer de rigueur. The new fashion on Utah's Capitol Hill is to do everything to satisfy the present and to worry about the future some other time.

The Growth Summit of December '95 led eventually to the creation of the Quality Growth Commission in the 1999 legislative session, which was charged with helping to preserve important lands. That legislative session, by the way, became known as the session on growth. The bill that created the commission, and endowed it with $2.75 million for its first year, had more than 40 co-sponsors. It was, said the House majority leader of the time, all about "enhancing and preserving the quality of life that we have all grown to know and love."

This year's motto? Growth, shmowth.

This year, the commission was cut to $482,600. The governor recommended $2.2 million for the next fiscal budget. But, as of late last week, the talk on the hill was of appropriating only $482,600 again. Some people even groused that it ought to be cut out altogether.

That would hurt in a number of ways. A new federal farm bill, for example, would provide the state with four times the amount it contributes toward farmland conservation, up to a total of $16 million. Even a journalist can figure out how much four times zero equals.

When budgets are flush and times are good, politicians can afford to pontificate about how new subdivisions are threatening natural areas, or how local governments need help buying property so they can build parks, the green dots that provide breathing space amid the constant drumbeat of urban life.

When things get bad, the green dots are the first to go, usually because you won't get a long line of victims at the state Capitol grabbing television time with their complaints. People who lose parks and wetlands never know what they had. But that, of course, doesn't mean the decisions are any less critical.

In Utah, there is a further twist. Realtors have opposed the idea of a Growth Commission from the start. Rather than seeing open space preservation as an amenity, they have seen it as a threat to property rights. They tried unsuccessfully from the start to pack the commission with developers, Realtors and private industry.

So what has the commission done in four years? According to officials who met with the Deseret News editorial board this week, it has taken the money granted by the state and parlayed it into $52 million worth of projects statewide, divided fairly evenly among urban and rural areas. It has awarded grants to local governments who were able to get more funds from elsewhere to build parks or refuges.

But now, as one official put it, "We will be eating our seed corn."

We've gone from planting acorns that grow into oaks to eating seeds.

Just because the growth has subsided a bit from the frenetic pace of the '90s, the issues of growth management haven't disappeared. Last week, the Jordan River made a top 10 list of the nation's most endangered landscapes, as compiled by a group called Scenic America. I don't put a lot of stock into designations by interest groups, but the facts are worth noting. About 6,700 acres of wetlands remain along the river corridor, and much of it is in private ownership, subject to development.

No one is talking about robbing people of their property rights. Done correctly, conservation involves buying property at fair market values and preserving something that cannot be replaced once the asphalt and concrete are in place. Everyone benefits.

It's worth noting that Nevada recently passed a statewide bond that will provide $200 million toward water, open space and other conservation projects. Other states have done similarly.

In Utah, some counties and local governments are doing well. Voters approved Salt Lake County's so-called "Zoo, Arts and Parks" tax. But the state has done little to help, and it seems determined to do even less.

Unless, of course, someone comes along and makes it a fad again.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: