Just as people 15 years ago couldn't conceive of drinking mostly bottled water as we do today, Myles Rademan says Utah residents need to get used to the idea of paying a little for open space.

For 15 years, Rademan has been close to Park City's conservation efforts as the city's public affairs director. Now he is offering support to a group called Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air & Quality Growth, concerned citizens, civic leaders and conservation organizations that have officially launched a signature-gathering campaign to place a $150 million conservation bond on the November ballot.

"I wish them the best," he said of the initiative drive. "I know it's not an easy thing for people to tax themselves to buy open space, but it's sort of like planting a tree — you have to have hope in the future."

If voters approve the initiative, funds will be spent for statewide needs such as protecting and maintaining greenways, wetlands and sources of drinking water, critical wildlife habitat and historic landmarks, among other open spaces.

"This effort is really about protecting what makes Utah special," said Amanda Smith, president of the group. "That includes our wildlife, family farms and ranches and park lands, as well as the clean water and air that we want to pass on to our children."

The group will host a volunteers meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Anderson Foothill Library.

Now or never?

Nobody knows better than Evan Olsen how tough it is to sell a conservation tax.

A Republican state lawmaker until 2000, the dairy farmer from the Logan area tried a few times to get his colleagues at the Legislature to back conservation tax bills. He jockeyed and patched together compromises and even got the House of Representatives to pass his tax the last time.

"But the Senate was controlled by the real estate industry and developers, and they didn't want to hear it," said Olsen, now 72.

That bill would have allowed individual counties — with strong support and approval from the county governing body and a vote of the people — to raise the sales tax 1/8 of a cent to buy open space.

He chose the sales tax as the rail for his proposal because 15-20 percent of the increases would have been paid for by tourists. He's against property tax increases, and he's usually against bonding.

But something needs to be done, he said.

"The concept is we'll lose everything if we don't do something," Olsen said from his farm Friday. "We'll lose our quality of life."

Many community leaders feel the same way and are stepping into the effort. Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn is honorary co-chairman of the group.

"As Utah grows, we need to work in a balanced way to protect our watersheds, wildlife and critical lands," he said. "If we wait to make this investment, it may be too late."

This subject of conservation land bonding has had some good attention in the past, some good chances to pass, but has always run up against hurdles, Olsen said.

"I have to say, and it's not sour grapes, but Gov. (Mike) Leavitt was really not that supportive," he said.

It is a comment Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, has voiced publicly and others in the conservation community have voiced privately. Leavitt went all out in 1999, urging support of the Quality Growth Act and other land preservation efforts.

"He held events and was very strong about it, then he kind of died back," Becker said.

Leery of taxes

This winter, lawmakers rejected a resolution by Becker, who unsuccessfully put the same proposal before his colleagues this winter. Organizers estimate Utahns would pay 1 cent on every $20 purchase as part of the campaign. Becker's proposal would have increased the Utah sales tax .0005 percent over the next seven to eight years for open space.

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.

There is reluctance among lawmakers and Utahns to raise taxes, especially taxes specially earmarked to projects, said House Majority Leader Greg Curtis, R-Sandy.

"There is very strong advocacy by different programs, where they say, 'Earmark our tax because our tax is the most important,' " Curtis said. "But when you are trying to balance a budget and meet different needs across the state, you hate to have your hands tied because we've used up more taxing authority and we've earmarked the money."

Although lawmakers have done it to fund transportation or other concerns, it's a policy that is difficult and frustrating for the Legislature, he said.

And tax increases always cause consternation, he said.

Becker does not believe the bill's defeat hinged on tax issues in an election year. "I don't think that is as much a factor as just the reluctance to support anything related to open space protection," he said.

Many legislators attitudes range from resistance to considering open-space protection, to the most conservative members' hostility to the notion, he said. A strong majority of the Legislature shares "a belief that government should not be participating in any way to protect (even) some of our most critical land," Becker said.

Polls show Utahns support the concept of open space. Most recently, in June 2003 a Dan Jones & Associates survey showed 92 percent of residents want open space preserved on the foothills in Davis County. The poll also revealed 80 percent of residents want to acquire more public open spaces in the foothills.

Critics of the GOP-dominated Legislature say lawmakers have ignored public wishes for the money to be set aside for public lands.

Curtis disagrees that the Legislature has been unresponsive.

"I understand they are saying we didn't respond to their particular issue. But if we responded to every request for funding, taxes would literally double. We have to balance within a budget.

"So, if the public wants to vote that in, then I say that's great. That's the process."

Question of support

To get the initiative on the ballot in November, Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air & Quality Growth must gather just under 80,000 signatures in 26 of 29 Senate districts.

Curtis says when the rubber hits the road, he wonders whether Utahns will be supportive.

"When asked the question, "Do you want more money for open space protection,' people will say, 'Well sure,' " Curtis surmised. "But if you say, 'Do you want your taxes raised for open space protection,' I think you would find a different answer,"

True, and false, according to Utah's voting history.

In May 2003, a poll showed 47 percent of those surveyed said local governments should do "whatever is possible" to preserve open space along the 44-mile Jordan River as long as the expense is "minimal." About 13 percent said governments should help preserve the land without spending any public monies. Only 35 percent said local governments should do "whatever is necessary" toward the preservation, and 3 percent said no attempts at preservation should be made.

But Salt Lake residents recently overwhelmingly supported a bond to raise $5.4 million for open space preservation.

Park City has passed two such measures for $10 million each.

But Utah isn't like everywhere else when it comes to land, Curtis said.

In the Beehive State, 75 to 80 percent of the land is owned by government, he said. "So if you live in Salt Lake County, there is value in preserving land, especially along riverbeds where you have wildlife habitat and so forth.

"But literally, you can drive for 45 minutes, and you can be in some fairly magnificent open space," he said. "So we do have some opportunities to go out and enjoy the outdoors without going out and taxing more."

Brad Barber was former Gov. Mike Leavitt's watchdog over land issues for more than a decade. "It's not going to be an easy deal by any means," Barber said.

It's a worthy effort, and there's no question Utah can benefit from the bond and the property it protects, he said. "But there will be some issues as to whether or not we can afford it," Barber said. "That's going to be the challenge."

Volunteers will start immediately gathering the signatures, needed by July 1.

Olsen has been a farmer all his life, and he stuck close to GOP leadership in his voting record, but he could not get his conservative friends to budge on open space.

Today, he works his farm southwest of Logan in Young Ward.

It's a dairy of about 60 cows. He feeds a few more, bales hay and barley, and watches the sandhill cranes that summer here and are on their way back to Utah. There are also Canada Geese that make his farm their home, and Olsen says he wants them to stay.

"It's definitely time to do something," he said.


Conservation initiative

Proponents of a $150 million conservation bond for preserving open space in Utah need to gather 76,180 signatures from Utahns in 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts by July 1 to put the measure on the November ballot. Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air & Quality Growth will host a meeting seeking volunteers at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Salt Lake City's Anderson-Foothill Library, 1135 S. 2100 East.

If passed by voters, the funds generated would protect and maintain, among others:

Land around rivers, lakes and streams

Sources of drinking water

Wetlands and critical wildlife habitat

Greenways

Family farms and ranches

Historic and cultural landmarks

City, county and state parks and trails and facilities


E-mail: lucy@desnews.com