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Senate approves sweeping public lands bill

A desert tortoise finds relief from the sun under a bush in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve north of St. George in 2001.
A desert tortoise finds relief from the sun under a bush in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve north of St. George in 2001.
Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

The Senate passed Thursday a massive package of public lands bills that would create 2 million acres more of wilderness areas nationwide — and includes a bill debated for years to decide which areas of Utah's fast-growing Washington County should be protected as pristine, and which may be developed.

The overall package also includes several smaller Utah land trade bills to help a Boy Scout camp, a ranch for troubled youth, Park City open space and shooting range in Bountiful. It would also study giving federal protection to alternate routes by those who followed the Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express, California and Oregon National Historic Trails.

The bill passed 73-21 after a one-man filibuster by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had blocked it for months —and had even required a rare Sunday vote this week to quash his maneuvering. Coburn complained that the bill, which combines more than 160 land bills, includes wasteful spending, would block oil and gas drilling, and would hurt private property rights.

The package now moves to the House for consideration.

The Utah congressional delegation — and even environmental groups —were ecstatic that the Senate finally passed the Washington County lands bill, which has been debated and rewritten over many years to try to find a compromise between protecting wild areas and serving the needs of the fast growing area.

"This is a very gratifying day for everyone in southern Utah that has been seeking solutions to the wilderness problems in their backyards for more than a decade," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who had sponsored the Washington County bill along with Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

Matheson said, "For the first time, people who live and work in Washington County have come together on a plan that envisions preserving the remarkable quality of life here." He added, "I am encouraged by how far we've come in this effort, knowing that we're not yet across the finish line."

Even Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, was happy. "The passage of this bill will mean permanent protection for some of the nation's most remarkable wild lands as well as the promise of a new future for wilderness protection in the state of Utah." He added, "Getting to this day was no easy task."

Washington County Commissioner Jim Eardely said, "This has been a very thorough process that has led not only to this legislation, but also the Vision Dixie planning process. We believe this bill sets a historic precedent."

Among provisions of the bill are:

— Designating $256,338 acres of wilderness in the county, including more than 94 percent of all U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study areas there now, and enlargement of Zion National Park to include some.

— Creating two new national conservation areas at Red Cliff and Beaver Dam. That includes providing some areas of permanent protection for the endangered desert tortoise and other at-risk species around St. George, allowing development in other areas.

— Designating 165.5 miles of the Virgin River and its tributaries as a wild and scenic river, sort of a wet wilderness area. That is the first such designation in Utah.

— Authorization to sell excess BLM lands in the county that are considered to be non-environmentally sensitive. About 95 percent of the proceeds would go to help buy high-priority lands considered to be biologically significant.

— Enhanced management of off-highway vehicle use, including designating a High Desert OHV trail.

— Conveying 353 acres to the county and cities for public purposes, including expansion of the Purgatory Correctional Facility.

— Transferring 640 acres of public land into trust for the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians.

Several other smaller bills affecting Utah were also included in the large public lands omnibus bill.

They include a land trade between a Boy Scout camp and the Brian Head ski resort to give the resort more steep terrain for skiing and the camp more usable flat land. It requires approval of Congress because of restrictions on the land placed when the federal government gave it to the Boy Scouts.

Another would allow Park City to obtain two federal tracts within its boundaries totaling 108.5 acres. It would allow the city to preserve them for open space and recreation.

One would study the possibility of giving federal protection to some alternate routes used by early travellers on the Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express, California and Oregon trails. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, "Some of the most interesting and important events happened along variations of the main trails."

Another bill would allow Bountiful to exchange 1,600 acres it now owns within national forest boundaries for federal acreage adjacent to the city, including a 220-acre parcel that is home of the Bountiful Lions Club gun range and the Davis aqueduct. City ownership would allow upgrades at the shooting range.

Another bill would correct what the Utah delegation says was a surveying error that put 25 acres of BLM land used by the Turnabout Ranch, which runs a program for troubled youth, into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The bill would adjust the boundary and allow the ranch to buy the land to correct property trespass questions.