A conservation group wants to ask Utahns to pay about $7 annually each to help preserve open space.

The Utah Nature Conservancy and community leaders have started a campaign to get the topic on the statewide ballot. A political information committee called Utahns for Clean Air, Clean Water & Quality Growth has been organized to place a $150 million conservation bond on the 2004 ballot.

A diverse group is behind the open-space effort, including former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, former state Sen. LeRay McAllister and Bud Scruggs, former chief of staff for former Gov. Norm Bangerter. The Nature Conservancy is also joined by Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife members and farmers from throughout Utah.

"Those guys have a big jobs, and we understand that, but we don't have a lot of time," said Dave Livermore, executive director of the conservancy. Utah is losing watershed, farmlands and other sensitive areas to development.

"Utah's critical lands, our redrock canyons, mountain forests and clear lakes and streams are the foundation of our quality of life," reads the Web site www.utahlands2004.org. "Now, more than ever, we must act to protect these treasures while we still have time."

Utahns for Clean Air, Clean Water & Quality Growth must collect 76,180 signatures in 26 of 29 state Senate districts. Initiative campaigns must include public meetings, which are already under way.

The plan, which essentially increases the Utah sales tax .0005 percent over the next seven to eight years for open space, renews efforts by Democratic Rep. Ralph D. Becker of Salt Lake City, who unsuccessfully put the same proposal before his colleagues this winter. Organizers estimate Utahns would pay one cent on every $20 purchase as part of the campaign.

"I think the voters should have a chance to decide whether they want to invest in protecting some of our most precious lands for future generations with this modest contribution," said Becker, a planner and lawyer.

His HJR15 called for a November ballot referendum in which voters could authorize the Legislature to approve the issuance of $150 million in revenue bonds to preserve critical lands and habitats. The resolution made it out of committee with a one-vote margin but never made it to the House floor.

Salt Lake City and Park City have passed conservation bonds with 70 percent voter approval. And other states have committed millions to similar efforts: California has passed $3 billion in voter-approved bond measures and nearby Nevada about $200 million.

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In 1999, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and GOP leaders passed the Utah Quality Growth Act and created the Quality Growth Commission to answer growth-related questions while protecting private-property rights. The commission was also charged with distributing "quality growth funds" to communities throughout the state, which it has done. Nearly 35,000 acres have been protected throughout Utah in projects requested by landowners and approved by the commission.

But four years later, the commission has not yet made any recommendations to the Legislature, and lawmakers have siphoned the LeRay McAllister Open Space Fund from $3 million to less than $500,000.

"The Legislature hasn't funded open space," said Lawson Legate of the Utah Sierra Club. "So this sounds like 'OK, well we need to go to Plan B.' "

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com

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