HURRICANE, Washington County — The proposed Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006 could lead to "growth on steroids" in one of the nation's fastest-growing counties if it becomes federal law, said Lin Alder, director of Citizens for Dixie's Future.

"We have to ask ourselves some hard questions. How do we grow smarter and not just bigger?" Alder said during a presentation last week to the Hurricane City Council. "This bill should be postponed until we can improve the process and have real community-wide discussions. The process hasn't been inclusive. Let's bring the community to the table first and trust the community."

The proposed legislation is slated to come before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health on Thursday. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, are co-sponsors of the bill.

The measure would establish wilderness areas; sell up to 25,000 acres of public land to private developers; promote conservation goals; protect endangered species; provide an off-road vehicle trail; and establish utility corridors for future growth.

Proceeds from the land sales would be distributed among the county, state trust lands, the Washington County Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM already has designated 4,300 acres it wants to sell. Any future land sales would be identified through a local community planning process called "Vision Dixie" that includes representatives from various county stakeholders.

"This bill doesn't mean we have to have more rooftops. That's not the intention," said Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner, who briefed the Hurricane City Council on the bill. "There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and we're just trying to get the word out about the land sales. It could be 20 acres sold, or the full 20,000 acres. Any lands that do come in for sale would be subject to existing planning and zoning regulations. And it will happen over a period of time; it's not going to be 'for sale next week."'

Opponents of the bill say the legislation is seriously flawed. Environmental groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society are opposed to the bill in large part because it promotes the sale of public lands to private buyers.

"This bill is an environmental disaster," said Scott Groene, director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Salt Lake City. "It's complex legislation that raises a significant number of issues for many people."

Proponents of the bill say it would preserve precious land for future transportation and utility corridors while protecting the county's sensitive plants and animals.

"This has been in process for a long time," said Gardner, who will testify before the House subcommittee next week. "There are some trade-offs in the bill, but I think this is as good as we can get. It will go a long way toward resolving wilderness issues."

Hurricane Mayor Tom Hirschi said his town needs a northern transportation corridor of its own to handle the amount of expected growth in the valley.

"I don't want urban sprawl. There's a lot of planning that needs to take place, and I still have a lot of questions," Hirschi said. "But I think the wilderness people are getting big benefits in this bill — more than the rest of us are."

Lawson LeGate, Utah field director for the Sierra Club, said Friday that the bill is "a camel's nose under the tent."

"The question is, do we treasure our public lands or treat them like cash cows?" he said. "Where will it all end? It's a fundamentally bad idea to sell off public lands to fund pet projects of local politicians."


E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com